Xi Jinping Says He Is Preparing China for War
The World Should Take Him Seriously
Leaders from both political parties in the United States agree that the country is locked in a strategic competition with China. The Biden administration’s National Defense Strategy, released in 2022, bluntly stated that China represents “the most comprehensive and serious challenge to U.S. national security.” Not to be outdone, Wisconsin Representative Mike Gallagher, the Republican chair of the House Select Committee on China, a special panel established in January, described U.S.-Chinese competition as “an existential struggle over what life will look like in the twenty-first century.” Now more than ever, it is easy to imagine today’s competition with China turning into a protracted regional conflict, such as a war in the Taiwan Strait.
War is always scary, but it is even scarier when your side is not sufficiently prepared. And indeed, the U.S. defense industrial base is inadequate if the United States and China were to go to war. In 2022, the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), where I serve as senior vice president, conducted a war game involving a Chinese amphibious invasion of Taiwan in 2026. The exercises revealed how quickly the United States would run through its current supply of weapons in the first few weeks of a major war. Certain critical munitions—such as long-range, precision-guided munitions—would likely run out in less than one week. To avoid these shortfalls, the United States would need to scale up its production of weapons, but doing so quickly would be extremely difficult.
Equally concerning, these gaps undermine deterrence—the linchpin of the United States’ defense strategy—because they reveal to all that the United States cannot endure a lengthy war. China has not made the same mistake. Beijing is acquiring high-end weapons systems and equipment five to six times as fast as the United States, according to some U.S. government estimates. Additionally, China would fight a war in the Taiwan Strait in its backyard, with easy access to its own industrial base. The United States would have to fight 7,000 miles from the shores of California.
The clock is ticking. In March 2021, Admiral Phil Davidson, then the commander of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, predicted that China might invade Taiwan “during this decade, in fact, in the next six years.” And U.S. President Joe Biden has stated repeatedly that the United States would intervene militarily in the event of a Chinese attack on Taiwan. In this competitive international landscape, the United States needs a national strategy that will reinvigorate its lagging defense industrial base—much like the Roosevelt administration expanded the country’s military capacity in the 1930s and early 1940s. Fortunately, the United States has a strong foundation on which to build, with a highly capable industrial base and a rich tradition of technological innovation.
The war in Ukraine provided one of the first indications that there was a problem with the U.S. defense industrial base. Following Russia’s invasion, the United States provided the Ukrainian military with a range of weapons, from Javelin antiarmor systems to High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS) and Stinger antiaircraft systems. This assistance was critical in helping the Ukrainian military halt Russia’s invasion. But the aid came at a cost. The rate at which soldiers are using ammunition in Ukraine has strained the U.S. defense industrial base.
A year into the Ukraine fight, American military aid reached a staggering $32 billion. Many of the weapons systems and munitions came directly from U.S. inventories, depleting the country’s stockpiles. The United States, for example, provided Ukraine with over 8,500 Javelin antitank systems, 1,600 Stinger antiaircraft systems, and 38 HIMARS between February 2022 and March 2023. Providing this aid was the right decision because it helped prevent a successful Russian invasion of Ukraine. But these are systems the United States could have used to train U.S. troops or to stockpile in the Indo-Pacific for a future war.
The number of Javelins transferred to Ukraine over the first six months of the war is the same number the United States would normally produce over seven years. This volume strained the Javelin production line, which needed a major infusion of funding from the Department of Defense to restock. Even at accelerated production rates, it is likely to take several years to replenish the inventory of Javelins, Stingers, and other in-demand items. In addition, the rate at which several weapons systems are being exported—such as Javelins, Stingers, HIMARS, Guided Multiple Launch Rocket Systems (GMLRS), and Harpoon antiship missiles—may mean there will not be enough munitions in stock to match the requirements of U.S. war plans for China and Russia.
More broadly, the war in Ukraine has demonstrated that great-power wars—particularly wars of attrition—are industrial conflicts . The effort to deploy, arm, feed, and supply forces is a monumental task, and the massive consumption of equipment, systems, vehicles, and munitions requires a large-scale industrial base for resupply. On some days, the Russian military has launched 50,000 artillery shells at Ukrainian military and civilian positions. Ukraine is also burning through munitions at a frenzied rate, firing as many 155-millimeter rounds in five days as the United States produces in a month. Meanwhile, fighter aircraft, main battle tanks, artillery, and drones have also been destroyed or have broken down and constantly need to be replaced or repaired.
The U.S. defense industrial base would face even greater challenges if war broke out in Asia. To help understand the complexities and challenges of a war in the Taiwan Strait, CSIS conducted two dozen iterations of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan. In the war game, retired military officers and civilian experts played the roles of military leaders from China, Japan, Taiwan, the United States, and other participants. Using an operational map of the western Pacific and a map of Taiwan for ground combat, players took turns conducting military actions, such as firing ballistic missiles and deploying aircraft carriers.
In virtually every iteration of the war game, the United States expended more than 5,000 long-range missiles of various types in three weeks of conflict. Among the most important munitions to prevent a Chinese seizure of all of Taiwan are long-range precision missiles, including missiles launched by U.S. submarines, and these ran out quickly in the war game. The same is true of ship-based munitions, such as the SM-6, which would also be expended in large quantities in such a conflict.
Antiship cruise missiles offer a useful case study. In every iteration of the CSIS war game, the United States expended its inventory of antiship cruise missiles within the first week of the conflict. These missiles were particularly useful because of their ability to strike Chinese naval forces from beyond the range of Chinese air defenses. These air defense systems are likely to be formidable—especially early in a conflict—and may be able to prevent most aircraft from moving close enough to drop short-range munitions. Bombers used in the war game generally employed these munitions because they could be based outside the range of Chinese missiles .
The war in Ukraine has demonstrated that great-power wars are industrial conflicts.
There are no quick solutions to ramping up missile production capacity to meet these needs, but that is all the more reason to start now. The first step is to incentivize U.S. defense companies to build more. But these firms are generally unwilling to ramp up arms production and take financial risks without having contracts in place, especially multiyear ones. Given the large capital and personnel investments required, it is not a sound business decision to produce more munitions or weapons without a clear demand signal and clear financial commitments from the U.S. government. Although the Department of Defense signs multiyear contracts for ships and airplanes, it generally does not sign multiyear contracts for many munitions. In addition, the U.S. military services frequently cut munitions from their budgets at the end of each fiscal year to make room for other priorities or to fix problems that arise during the acquisition of larger weapons systems.
Workforce and supply chain constraints also prevent companies from increasing the production of weapons systems and munitions that would be needed in a major war. Companies need to hire, train, and retain workers. Moreover, supply chains for the U.S. defense sector are not as secure as they should be. In some cases, just a single company makes a key component. The Javelin, for instance, relies on a rocket motor that is currently produced exclusively by the company Aerojet Rocketdyne. Only one company, Williams International, builds turbofan engines for most cruise missiles.
There are also significant vulnerabilities with some rare-earth metals, which China has a near monopoly on, that are critical for manufacturing various missiles and munitions. China dominates the advanced battery supply chains across the globe, including the refining of cobalt, copper, lithium, and nickel, as well as the production of anodes, separators, and electrolytes. China is the global leader in cast products, which are used in most military platforms and munitions from ships to missiles. Beijing produces more than the next nine countries combined, including over five times as much as the United States. The Department of Defense depends on foreign governments, including China, for large cast and forged products, which are used in some defense systems and machine tools.
Finally, lead time is a significant constraint. Missiles, space-based systems, and ships face the longest replacement times. It can take roughly two years to produce many types of missiles, and this is generally based on the time needed to deliver the first missiles—not the last ones.
The United States needs a new industrial base strategy designed to produce sufficient quantities of the most important weapons systems and munitions to deter and—if deterrence fails—effectively fight not only Russia but also China. The goal should be to assess the wartime demands on a limited set of weapons systems and munitions, as well as to establish a more certain production future for weapons manufacturing. Added capacity is also important to deter adversaries, such as China, and to credibly demonstrate that the United States and its allies have the capability to conduct a sustained military campaign if necessary. Greater industrial capacity would also support U.S. efforts to provide additional capacity to Asian and European allies.
The key to improving defense industrial base capacity is a reassessment of total munitions requirements for deterrence and going to war against China and Russia. Important munitions questions that should be addressed include whether military planning is aligned to the realities of high-intensity combat in one—or more than one—theater. This might include modeling the expenditure rates of critical guided munitions among land, naval, and air forces in a major conflict at various levels of intensity and duration, including how long it would take to restart or increase production. Today, the Defense Department bases its procurement on its operational plans, which are generally for short wars. Instead of asking defense industries to assess their capacity to produce specific munitions or weapons systems, as sometimes occurs, a better option would be for the Department of Defense to analyze what it needs based on wartime scenarios and analyses. The Pentagon could then provide direction and resources to defense suppliers to fill the gaps.
Another step would be to accelerate manufacturing by using advance-purchase agreements and multiyear contracts. These options have often been limited to large programs such as ships and aircraft, but they could help with munitions. This should include signing multiyear contracts for specific munitions and weapons systems necessary to deter—and to fight if deterrence fails—adversaries such as China and Russia. The 2023 National Defense Authorization Act was a good start to approving multiyear contracts for some munitions, but Congress needs to expand these efforts.
There are no quick solutions to ramping up missile production capacity.
Finally, the Department of Defense needs to look for more opportunities to codevelop and coproduce weapons systems with friendly countries, what some have called “ally shoring.” Coproduction facilities can have multiple benefits, including strengthening the production capacity of allies and increasing the economies of scale. And American companies have done it before: including manufacturing HIMARS with Poland; a new tactical ballistic missile, known as the PrSM, with Australia; a new antiship missile with Norway; and SM-6 components and Tomahawks with Australia and Japan.
The military is taking some promising initial steps. The U.S. Army now plans to boost its monthly capacity to produce 155-millimeter shells from about 14,000 to 30,000 in 2023 and eventually to 90,000. The Pentagon is spending $80 million to bring a second source online for the Javelin missile’s rocket motor and plans to double production to around 4,000 a year. Overall, the U.S. Army hopes to increase production of artillery shells by 500 percent within two years to replenish stockpiles sent to Ukraine—the largest production expansion since the Korean War.
After two decades of operations against al Qaeda and the Islamic State (also known as ISIS), the United States has fundamentally shifted its defense strategy from counterterrorism to competition with China and Russia. But words are not enough. The U.S. defense industrial base is sorely lagging. Without urgent changes, the United States will find itself unable to fight a protracted war or deter Russian or Chinese aggression.
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