Aug. 30, 2023
Despite sending more than $43 billion in military aid to Ukraine—both lethal and non-lethal—the U.S. is not “running out” of any particular munitions or equipment needed for its own forces, Pentagon acquisition and sustainment chief William LaPlante told attendees at a defense conference in Washington, D.C.
“We’re not running out of anything,” LaPlante said in a fireside chat at the inaugural conference of the National Defense Industrial Association’s Emerging Technology Institute on Aug. 28.
“In the papers, sometimes, it says, ‘we’ve run out of X or Y,’” because of aid to Ukraine, but that’s not true, LaPLante said.
“We’re managing all of that,” he added, describing the process to identify items for Ukraine that are excess to U.S. military needs. Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs review the lists of what’s being offered and what’s being requested, “and they look exactly at the effect on readiness” of providing those items, LaPlante said. If they feel there’s a negative effect, or if handing off a certain weapon or quantity of weapons increases risk beyond an acceptable level, “we won’t do it,” he said, although he didn’t cite any examples of equipment withheld.
There have been concerns in Congress that providing large quantities of Stinger anti-aircraft missiles and Javelin anti-tank missiles to Ukraine is emptying U.S. stocks, but LaPlante said there are enough on hand and has previously said his organization is working to shorten lead times for replenishment orders.
The real challenge has been to not simply provide equipment as requested, but to anticipate what Ukraine will need and have it moving through the pipeline so it arrives in a timely manner, LaPlante noted.
For example, Ukraine needed different military equipment for its ongoing counteroffensive than in the early days of the conflict, when it was focused on holding ground and repelling advances.
Since then, it’s been an effort of matching provision of gear to “the consumption rate,” LaPLante said, and in some cases such as artillery, those rates approximate the consumption in World War II.
Once the Pentagon identifies an anticipated need, “you have to look at all the tools … [and] find the best one” to get the aid to Ukraine in a sensible way, he said. Sometimes, that will mean exercising authority Congress has given to buy new items for Ukraine and ship them directly, while at other times it means asking another country to buy or provide it.
More broadly, LaPlante said there has been a mindset change in the U.S. defense industrial base as a result of the Ukraine war. In the past, U.S. stockpiles were geared toward short conflicts and not surges. That’s changed as think tanks and Pentagon wargamers expand the timescale of their exercises, to see what would happen if a conflict didn’t last a few weeks but a year or more, he said. When the timelines are extended, it usually leads to a shortage of precision guided munitions, especially at an intense level of effort, he said.
Although this has shown up in some previous wargames, “we didn’t budget to it,” LaPLante said, and he acknowledged that munitions have frequently been the account that gets cut when budgets tighten. Moreover, during the 20 years the U.S. was fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq, there was a tendency to produce the minimum of high-end weapons needed for peer conflict.
The push now is to do more multiyear procurements, and LaPlante said that shows industry they can safely invest in expanding capacity.
Congress has given “tremendous support” in provisioning Ukraine, LaPlante asserted, although it’s taken “a lot of education” with some members. He expressed optimism that support will continue.
A new wrinkle in the aid to Ukraine will be sustainment, LaPlante said. The M1 Abrams tanks being provided to Ukraine “won’t work” in a few weeks if they don’t undergo certain kinds of maintenance. The U.S. can’t put its own troops on the battlefield and doesn’t want to expose contractors to that risk either, so LaPlante said the U.S. is increasingly turning to “tele-maintenance,” wherein contractors or Army personnel walk Ukrainian maintainers through the process remotely.
What’s being learned is applicable to how the U.S. may sustain equipment in future conflicts, as tele-maintenance will make it possible to reduce the forward footprint of troops and contractors.
All in all, LaPlante said the defense enterprise has done a “remarkable” job in streamlining processes to get Ukraine the gear it needs in a timely manner. Configuring the M1 tanks in a way that was acceptable to the Army—removing some gear considered too sensitive to risk Russia gaining access to it—normally takes a year and a half, LaPlante said, but the Army managed it in six months.