The Industrial Base at War

Dec. 1, 1991

This time last year, the United States was engaged in a massive movement of forces and supplies to the Persian Gulf, getting ready for a war that it still hoped to avoid. From August 2, when Iraq invaded Kuwait, until the fighting began January 17, logisticians and suppliers pushed themselves at a punishing pace and made full use of every day they had to prepare.

Thus, US forces entered Operation Desert Storm with the advantage of five months of preparation on top of excellent levels of stocks and equipment built up in the 1980s. The military drawdown of the 1990s had barely begun.

The conflict ended February 28, so the US industrial infrastructure was not called on to mobilize or expand production. Nevertheless, thin spots began to appear during those forty-two days of combat. Had Operation Desert Storm lasted much longer, real problems would probably have developed.

Current strategy would classify the Persian Gulf War as a major regional contingency.” There is some doubt about how well smaller US forces of the future–supported by a much-diminished industrial base and operating with less favorable initial conditions–will be prepared to meet another conflict of similar scope.

There has been considerable confusion about how much “surge production” actually took place during the Gulf War. Numerous reports of industrial surge appeared in the popular press, and some official statements referred to surging. The confusion stems largely from the definition of “surge,” which no longer means what it once did. Until recently, surge was generally understood to be the expansion of military production in the absence of a formally declared national emergency. Today, however, surge is officially defined as “the accelerated production, maintenance, and repair of selected items and the expansion of logistics support services to meet contingencies short of a declared national emergency, utilizing existing facilities and equipment.”

The “surge” reported in the popular press was essentially a speedup of items already in the production pipeline. Except for consumables and small items, there appears to have been no significant expansion of production.

David J. Berteau, the principal deputy assistant secretary of defense for Production and Logistics, told Congress that the Gulf War “did not really tax our industrial base. . . . Our existing inventories of weapon systems and munitions were adequate to support Desert Storm requirements, so it proved unnecessary to surge or mobilize production of these complex, long-lead items except on a very selective basis.”

Furthermore, as one Army commander noted, much of the “surge” was in maintenance and overhaul. Air Force Logistics Command accelerated the repair of more than 80,000 parts and expedited the overhaul of seventy aircraft.

Shackles in Three Days

The war effort was aided by the ingenuity and spirited support of industry and the systems-logistics community. Maximum effort was cheerfully given. What it was possible for the troops to get, they got. One case in point: When the Pentagon needed shackles to secure Army Ml tanks for overseas movement, AM General provided them in three days without any government paperwork.

Such voluntary cooperation from industry made it easier to get by without the powers of the Defense Production Act (DPA), which had lapsed.

Finally, some major new weapon systems were leapfrogged through development into operational status. The E-8 Joint STARS aircraft, for example, flew combat missions six years before official deployment. However, accelerated deliveries were extensive [see table, opposite] and definitely represented a surge as currently defined. The surge that took place was important and impressive. In his statement to Congress, Mr. Berteau gave several examples:

• In August 1990, the Defense Logistics Agency had three producers who each month could supply three million Meals, Ready to Eat. By war’s end, twenty-two producers were supplying sixteen million MREs a month.

• In August 1990, three contractors could deliver 1.3 million tray pack meals a month. After the surge took place, tive contractors were producing 4.7 million tray packs a month. Delivery of other food products increased similarly.

• When Operation Desert Shield began, the Defense Department had no production base for desert boots. Sixty days later, four contractors were producing 136,000 desert boots each month, including the new “Schwarzkopf model.”

• At the start of the US buildup in the Gulf, the Pentagon had two contractors who each month produced 60,000 injectors for atropine, a nerve-agent antidote. Their production of injectors rose to a monthly peak of 717,000. In February, with the war still going on, Pentagon Comptroller Sean O’Keefe gave the House Armed Services Committee a sample list of “production surge items” that might be needed for the continued prosecution of Operation Desert Storm or for replenishment afterward.

The list included Patriot air-defense missiles, Hellfire and TOW antitank missiles, the Army’s Tactical Missile System, Multiple Launch Rocket System reloads, certain types of Army ammunition, AGM-88 HARMS (high-speed anti-radiation missiles), Tomahawk cruise missiles, AGM-65 Maverick air-to-ground missiles, and various bombs, flares, and munitions.

The war was both short and popular. There was no need to expand weapons production, and the Pentagon encountered no insurmountable problems with the industrial base.

“Disastrous” Shortages

“Had the Gulf War lasted longer,” says James A. Blackwell, Jr., who directs industrial base studies for the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D. C., “the lack of a coherent industrial response, authorized by the DPA, would have resulted in disastrous shortages of critical spare parts,. consumable items, certain ammunition, and other items.”

The commander of AFLC, Gen. Charles C. McDonald, testified that “our success in Desert Shield/ Desert Storm was largely due to the strong funding received for aircraft War Readiness Spares Kits/Base Level Self-Sufficiency Spares (WRSKBLSS) from 1984 through 1987. While funding was reduced significantly in FY 1988 and FY 1989 (forty-seven percent and twenty percent, respectively), the impact on Desert Shield/Desert Storm operations for most systems was not critical because our total spares posture was healthy.”

However, “selected weapon systems, such as the F-15E, did experience degraded support due to inadequate funding,” said General McDonald. “These shortfalls were overcome by robusting WRSKs through cannibalization prior to unit deployment and surging depot repair of exchangeables. If hostilities had been extended, adequate support would have been jeopardized.”

There were many instances when commercial products were acquired quickly and substituted for military items. Global Positioning System (GPS) receivers have been cited as an example. In that case and others, however, there is more to the story.

Commercial GPS receivers do not have the “selective availability” feature, which allows its users to decode encrypted satellite data. Highly accurate information of prime military value is normally encrypted to deny its use to the enemy.

“When we were forced into a quick buy of commercial receivers to support the desert operations, we made a conscious decision to turn [the selective availability] off and risk allowing enemy use,” Gen. Donald J. Kutyna, commander in chief of US Space Command, told the Senate. “Iraq was not equipped with smart weapons, which might use GPS in their guidance systems, so the risk to the coalition forces was minimal. In light of the startling success and praise heaped on GPS by the troops, this situation will not be prevalent in the future.”

After the war, the Department of Defense informed Congress that “Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm acquisition and procurement experience indicates a requirement for additional study on the appropriate balance between war reserve programs and industrial base capability.”

On numerous occasions during the Persian Gulf War, American forces relied on overseas suppliers for important components. Never did these sources fail to deliver, say Pentagon officials, and only twice did Washington have any trouble with a foreign supplier. All cases were resolved amicably and without threats.

Need for Persuasion

Even so, there have been many reports that the US government may have had to resort to high-level persuasion to ensure timely fulfillment of these deliveries. In several cases, reports the Congressional Research Service, reliance on overseas sources complicated the smooth flow of US supplies to the Persian Gulf, even when foreign governments were cooperating fully.

General McDonald has said that, “if the foreign suppliers had chosen to cut us off for political reasons in those few cases where they were the sole source, we might have had trouble recovering.”

The Gulf War was well-fought and well-supported, but the questions of expanded defense production and industrial mobilization never arose. There is no new evidence to refute the previously prevailing estimate that industry would need at least eighteen to twenty-four months to expand production for major military items.

There is no apparent reason to believe that industrial capability has improved since that estimate, but there are many reasons to conclude that it has declined. Much of the surge reported in Operation Desert Storm is explained by the change in definition of the term.

The Gulf War experience, along with the new US defense strategy, may stimulate a reconsideration of the need for expanded defense production and industrial mobilization in time of crisis. It has been forty years since the nation last mobilized for war.

Contrary to nostalgic belief, mobilization for World War II did not happen instantly. Expansion of military production capabilities began well before Japan’s December 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor, and peak production was not achieved in many war-critical industries until mid-1943.

For the duration of the Korean War, the US deliberately avoided disruption of civilian production, but mobilization was still extensive. By July 1952–two years after the outbreak of conflict–US aircraft production had grown to 800 a month, more than double the 1950 rate. By 1953, production had reached 1,000 a month. Most war industries expanded similarly. The nation did not mobilize for the Vietnam War, choosing to rely instead on reserve stocks and limited surges in selected industries.

In 1989, a defense industrial base project chaired by Sens. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) concluded that industrial mobilization was not a component of US national security strategy. That report observed that the nation has not conducted a rapid industrial mobilization in this century.


Regardless of how mobilization may have figured in Pentagon thinking in 1989, it is a definite component of the current defense strategy, which has undergone major revision in the past year and now places heavy emphasis on the capability to “reconstitute” forces.

The new defense strategy assumes that, for the foreseeable future, most military contingencies and conflicts can be handled by relatively small standing forces with existing stocks and support and the nation can count on ample warning time and adequate industrial preparedness to mobilize expanded forces for greater contingencies.

According to Gen. Colin Powell, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, reconstitution capability has three subcomponents: industrial capability, mobilization capability, and force regeneration capability.

The military chiefs make it clear they regard force reconstitution as a hedge against extreme contingencies, not as a step that would be taken for every conflict. Even with that stipulation, the new strategy represents a much stronger commitment to mobilization capability than was the case in earlier strategy. The Joint Chiefs of Staff say that the ability to reconstitute forces “may well prove to be the linchpin of America’s long-term security.”

Moreover, the Gulf War experience suggests that expanded production might be required in circumstances short of full force reconstitution, classic mobilization, and extreme contingencies.

Over the past fifty years, a considerable body of opinion has held that mobilization planning is irrelevant. The theory is that modern wars will be fought on a “come as you are” basis, with forces in hand, and that the conflict would be over before any mobilizing could take place.

In many conflict scenarios, that is probably a valid expectation, but actual war on the battlefield does not always follow the predictions of theory. Short-war assumptions were popular before (and even during) the “regional contingency” in Vietnam, a war that dragged on for a decade.

Planning for industrial responsiveness is not only practical but also imperative. As the Department of Defense said in its industrial base report for 1990, “maintaining an ability to reconstitute production rates to support regional conflicts, including possible Foreign Military Sales, on short notice is a challenging new issue for DOD.”

Adm. David E. Jeremiah, the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, says that the reappearance of a major new Soviet threat would be preceded by a long mobilization and “therefore, we will have time to reconstitute the necessary forces–provided we still have the infrastructure on which to build them.”

Whether that will be the case is an open question. The United States seems destined to enter the future with a strategy that counts on the capability to reconstitute forces but with a defense industrial base that is declining on all fronts.