America Broke its Own Military Industrial ComplexRoundup
tags: military industrial complex, Defense Industry
Michael Brenes is Interim Director of the Brady-Johnson Program in Grand Strategy and Lecture in History at Yale University.
After Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, the United States pledged its “unwavering support for Ukraine’s sovereignty.” This support has materialized in over $75 billion in security assistance to date, with the United States committed to aiding Ukraine until the fighting stops. As U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in announcing a new installment of weapons to Ukraine: “The United States and our allies and partners will stand united with Ukraine, for as long as it takes.”
These unlimited commitments to furnishing Ukraine with weapons to counter Russian aggression have invoked parallels to World War II. Weeks after the fighting began, the New York Times columnist Paul Krugman argued that the United States and its allies are “serving as the ‘arsenal of democracy,’ giving the defenders of freedom the material means to keep fighting” in Ukraine. The journalist Elliot Ackerman then wrote that the workers building missiles for Ukraine’s defense “are a key component of America’s arsenal of democracy.” President Joe Biden has also embraced the “arsenal of democracy” analogy. When he visited a Lockheed Martin plant in Troy, Alabama, in May last year, Biden told the audience that the United States “built the weapons and the equipment that helped defend freedom and sovereignty in Europe years ago” and is doing so again today.
But this lofty rhetoric does not match the reality on the ground. Shortages in production, inadequate labor pools, and interruptions in supply chains have hamstrung the United States’ ability to deliver weapons to Ukraine and enhance the country’s defense capabilities more broadly. These problems have much to do with the history of the U.S. defense industry since World War II. Creeping privatization during the Cold War, along with diminished federal investment and oversight of defense contracting since the 1960s, helped bring about the inefficiency, waste, and lack of prioritization that are complicating U.S. assistance to Ukraine today.
After the Berlin Wall fell, major players in the U.S. defense industry consolidated and downsized their operations and labor forces. They also pursued government contracts for expensive, experimental weaponry to obtain larger profits to the detriment of small arms and ammunition production. As a result, the industry has been underprepared in responding to the Ukraine crisis and unmoored from the broader national security needs of the United States and its allies. Although reforms are possible, there are no quick fixes to these self-inflicted injuries.
Today’s defense industry bears no resemblance to the U.S. system of military production during World War II. Back then, the industry was predominantly a government-run business. President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal emphasized economic regulation and relied on “alphabet agencies” such as the Works Progress Administration to boost employment, paving the way for later wartime contracting. New Deal agencies inspired the creation of the War Production Board in 1942, which mobilized business and rationed resources for the battlefront. Weapons production was concentrated in shipbuilding and aircraft, with companies based mainly in industrial centers in the Northeast and Midwest in government-owned, government-operated facilities known as GOGO plants. The government owned nearly 90 percent of the productive capacity of aircraft, ships, and guns and ammunition. This is in contrast to today’s climate, where commercial items have made up over 88 percent of new procurement awards since 2011, and private capital invests over $6 billion a year in the defense industry.