The Defense Industrial Base at Risk

For decades America has remained at the forefront of both industrial innovation and national defense. These twin pillars of American strength now exist in a challenging climate beset by uncertain economic and political realities. On December 6th, the Reserve Officers Association and the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Program on America and the Global Economy hosted a half day event that included Members of Congress and policy and industry experts to discuss these and other issues as they relate to the state of America’s defense industrial base. The speakers provided a number of unique perspectives and touched on a number of key elements affecting the defense industrial base that ranged from the defense budget and the push to reduce the country’s fiscal deficit to technological developments and the future U.S. international power.

Following welcoming remarks by Bob Feidler of the Reserve Officers Association, Lt. Gen. Michael Dunn (Ret.), President of the Air Force Association, provided a war-fighter’s perspective on the declining defense industrial base. “The bottom line,” he began, “is yes, the industrial base is in trouble.” Emphasizing the preeminent supremacy of American airpower throughout his speech, he noted the antiquated state of the air fleet today, citing a number of planes that are aging. Dunn argued that while the U.S. Air Force has long been America’s “asymmetric advantage,” the balance is no longer as one sided as it has been in the past as nations like Russia and China continue to build up their respective air fleets. Dunn reiterated the drastic need for greater plane procurement, insisting that the U.S. is not buying enough planes to sustain its military strength.

Next, Representative Jim Moran (D-VA) made his way to the podium to speak about the state of the defense industrial base from a congressional perspective. He outlined three major challenges endangering the US defense industrial base. He focused first on the challenge posed by the consolidation of the industrial base. Despite doubling defense spending since 9/11, Moran argued that a dramatic decrease in defense firms has led to a subsequent decrease in competition among defense contractors. The second challenge, he commented, is defining a defense strategy. “What is the future role of US military power?” he asked, and then stated that “No other nation stands a chance against us militarily.” The final challenge he posited was America’s defense as it relates to our budget deliberations. Moran noted that the recommendations of the deficit reduction commission would seriously reduce spending on national defense. Finally, he noted the importance of K-12 STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education, stating that the future of the defense industrial base will be reliant upon the success of the students in these fields.

Following Moran, a panel of experts discussed the implications of a weakening defense industrial base from a policymaker’s point of view. After opening remarks from Robert Litwak of the Wilson Center, Mackenzie Eaglen of the Heritage Foundation explained that industry is growing rapidly while defense is shrinking. Eaglen identified a widely held “rhetoric versus reality” viewpoint in which policymakers articulate the need for a stronger industrial defense base, while few guiding policies have emerged from the current administration.

Loren Thompson, of the Lexington Institute, followed by stating that the key to a stronger defense industrial base is a stronger private sector. Although it is tempting to blame China’s overproduction for the current deficiencies in the US defense industry, he claimed Washington has not done enough to prevent it from occurring. Patrick Wilson, of the Semiconductor Industry Association, then highlighted the reality that the defense industrial base suffers in part because a large number of the advanced degrees in math and science awarded in America are earned by foreign born students and they are not authorized to work on defense programs that have national security implications.

The last panel featured of number of experts from industry. David Morrison of Boeing opened with a call for better collaboration between the DOD and industry. Should communications be improved between the two, he argued, we can better sustain the defense industrial base and ward off foreign competition more effectively. Bill Gostic of Pratt and Whitney, and Mike Hamel of Orbital, concluded the day with a discussion of the seminal role of private investment and space exploration. The final panel concluded by reiterating that ensuring the continued vitality of the defense industrial base is of the utmost national importance.

By: Wesley Milillo
Kent Hughes, Director, Program on America and the Global Economy
Rob Litwak, Director, International Security Studies


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