It’s time to end the ‘era of the Great Distraction’
Opinion by George F. Will
July 26, 2023 at 21:00 Sydney Time
Dazzling U.S. precision weapons in the Gulf War 32 years ago encouraged a theory that was dangerous because it was soothing: The era of industrialized wars — those in which the mass manufacturing capacities of the combatant nations would be decisive — had ended. This theory has been slain by a fact: Russia’s war to erase Ukraine.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s aggression has revealed something astonishing to him — the myriad defects of his conventional armed forces. It has, however, awakened the United States to something alarming: Europe’s largest conflict since World War II has shown that the U.S. defense industrial base, which manufactured the materiel that produced victory in 1945, is inadequate for the world almost eight decades later.
The U.S. defense workforce is one-third what it was in 1985, during the Reagan-era buildup, when defense spending was 5.7 percent of gross domestic product. It is 3.1 percent today. The National Defense Industrial Association says that in the past five years, the “defense ecosystem” has lost a net 17,045 companies. This is partly because many small businesses recoil from the unpredictable cash flows from a government that cannot budget: The government has operated under continuing resolutions in parts of 13 of the past 14 years.
Politico’s Michael Hirsh reports that many components of munitions, planes and ships (including shell casings, fuses, parts of rocket motors and precursor elements of propellants and explosives) are made overseas, including in China. China has up to 50 percent of global shipbuilding; the United States has less than 1 percent. A surge capacity for defense production does not exist. Hirsh quotes Christian Brose, a former senior policy adviser to Sen. John McCain: “We could throw a trillion dollars a year at the defense budget now, and we’re not going to get a meaningful increase in traditional military capabilities in the next five years.” The fiscal 2024 defense budget is $842 billion.
As a senior U.S. military officer at NATO says, “Every war, after five or six days, becomes about logistics.” The Wall Street Journal reports that in a war with either Russia or China, “stocks of precision weaponry could be used up in hours or days.” The calculating men in Beijing know the impediments to what Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-Wis.), chair of the House Select Committee on China, considers most urgent: the manufacture and deployment of huge numbers of missiles and other high-tech munitions to East Asia.
Retired Air Force Gen. David Deptula calls the years since 9/11 “the era of the Great Distraction,” when we lost focus on the Chinese and Russian threats. Time will tell — soon — whether we have refocused too late.