Ukraine Isn’t the Reason the U.S. Is Unprepared for War

A lack of defense production has created an alarming gap between America’s strategy and its capabilities.

By Kori Schake

Since Russia invaded Ukraine in 2022, the United States has provided Kyiv with more than $43 billion worth of security assistance. Opponents of aid to Ukraine have argued that the United States is drawing down inventories of systems and ammunition that are already in short supply for its own forces, and which would be needed in any high-intensity conflict.

Our country could very well lose a large-scale war for lack of weapons and ammunition—but not because of aid to Ukraine. In a major conflict, the U.S. would run out of munitions in a few weeks, and in less than a week for some crucial categories. The quantity of weapons we are providing Ukraine is marginal compared with necessary weapons that we have not stocked. As Mackenzie Eaglen of the American Enterprise Institute has argued, “Over the past nine fiscal years, budget after budget has traded away combat power, truncated needed weapons early, and permanently closed production lines.”

Nor can we rely on our allies to supply themselves or engineer a lend-lease program to send us weapons if we should be fighting but they are not. For instance, even before it began sending weapons to Ukraine, the British military was so poorly stocked that in a major war, it would have run out of ammunition in a week.

Cutting off Ukraine won’t solve our under-capacity problem. We need to dramatically ramp up our spending and accelerate our defense production.

The adversary capable of forcing a high-intensity war on the United States is, of course, China. And China is giving worrisome indications of interest in doing so. The U.S. intelligence community assesses that China spends roughly $700 billion a year on defense, approaching U.S. levels of spending. It is on course to triple its nuclear arsenal by 2035. U.S. intelligence assesses that China aims to be able to conquer Taiwan by 2027. President Joe Biden himself has said the United States will send troops to defend Taiwan if it is attacked. And yet the president has cut the budget for troops, ships, and aircraft until 2035. Congress added $29 billion to Biden’s first defense budget and $45 billion to his second. It also allocated supplemental funding to replace for U.S. forces what’s being provided to Ukraine. But these sums are not enough to get U.S. forces where we need them to be.

More than one dollar in eight from the 2023 budget goes toward things that have little to do with fighting and winning wars. The current defense budget contains $109 billion in spending for nondefense items that belong more properly in the budgets of other parts of the government, such as the Department of Education. Administrations tend to put such items in the defense budget because it’s the only appropriations bill guaranteed to pass, and politicians like to claim that they are increasing defense spending. But the United States is not focusing its spending on essential weapons and ammunition.

Congress is also to blame for the deficiencies in funding. Debt-ceiling standoffs, sequestrations, and a failure to pass spending bills on time wreak havoc on DOD. As part of the debt-ceiling agreement, unless spending bills are passed by the end of the calendar year, Elaine McCusker and John Ferrari of the American Enterprise Institute calculate that sequestration spending caps will effectively cut defense spending by 8.6 percent.

In 1942, Admiral Chester Nimitz fought on the Midway Islands with only three aircraft carriers at his disposal. Less than three years later, he commenced operations against the Marianas with 15 new, larger, and faster carriers to feed into the fight. China has built a defense industry capable of such rapid production—but today, the United States couldn’t pull it off. The U.S. defense industry is sized for peacetime production. Mark Cancian of the Center for Strategic and International Studies estimates that at current production rates, just replacing the 155 mm artillery ammunition and the Javelin and Stinger missiles provided to Ukraine will take more than five years—and those pre-Ukraine inventories were themselves wholly inadequate.

In 1990, the United States had 54 companies that produced major defense articles; now it has just five. America reaped a peace dividend after the Cold War, then continued to take one even as the world grew more dangerous. The lack of defense production has created an alarming gap between what the United States says it can do in its strategy and what it’s actually capable of.

Nor are the shortfalls just in production. The United States has natural resources in abundance, but it mostly does not mine or process essential minerals, preferring to outsource that inefficient, messy, environmentally unpleasant work to other countries. “Rare earths” aren’t actually rare; they just exist in small quantities amid other soils. They need to be separated and chemically processed for use.

To genuinely redress the domestic shortfalls in weapons and ammunition that the intensity of combat in Ukraine has revealed, the United States needs to increase funding, rebuild its defense industry, and relax restrictions on allied cooperation in defense production. The fixes aren’t hard to identify—but as the great theorist of war Carl von Clausewitz wrote, “Everything is very simple in war, but the simplest thing is difficult.”

Start with funding: In 2017, the Trump administration adopted a National Defense Strategy, which Congress reviewed. Both branches of government concluded that enacting the strategy would require defense allocations to increase by 3 to 5 percent above inflation every year. The Biden administration’s defense strategy follows the same outlines as its predecessor’s, except in the areas where it is even more ambitious. But the 3 to 5 percent increase in spending hasn’t materialized; this year’s budget actually loses ground because of inflation. Filling the gap will cost at least $40 billion more than Biden’s $842 billion budget asks for. Unless Washington increases spending, it will have to choose between the size of its military force and the adequacy of that force’s weapons and munitions.

The single most important contribution Congress can make to the nation’s defense is to return to the regular order of passing budget bills on time. When Congress delays, the Defense Department has to rely on temporary spending bills, which do not allow it to sign long-term contracts, begin construction on military bases, and speedily invest in munitions production. The cost of these delays to the department is about $5 billion to $6 billion every month in purchasing power. And the lags are now routine: Last year, the defense budget was passed 75 days after the start of the fiscal year, robbing the DOD and taxpayers of about $15 billion in purchasing power.

The lack of funding and predictability has made the defense industry understandably skittish. If Washington were instead to deliver—on time—a budget that fully funds the country’s defense strategy, manufacturers might have the confidence to build the plants and hire and train the workers needed to replenish U.S. military stockpiles. The industry will want multiyear contracts, because it has been burned repeatedly by starting production only to have funding zeroed out by either Congress or DOD the following year. Congress has given DOD limited authority for multiyear contracts, but it should extend this authority and push DOD to make fuller use of it.

The United States has hampered its defense industry with regulations that don’t allow it to access economies of scale. Factories operated by allies abroad could help the United States build munitions much faster, and domestic businesses, especially those specializing in artificial intelligence and other cutting-edge technologies, could help build them much better. But the International Traffic in Arms Regulations have erected barriers that deter partners both at home and abroad. The Biden administration urgently needs to reform those regulations.

The Defense Department needs to ask—loudly—for what it needs and complain when the White House or Congress impedes the mission of quickly building the stockpiles that fighting China, shoring up allies, and supporting Ukraine would require. The U.S. government does an incredible disservice to its men and women in uniform by not ensuring that they have the supplies of weapons and ammunition to match their commitment. Without those supplies, the United States may lose its next war.

Kori Schake is a contributing writer at The Atlantic and the director of foreign- and defense-policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.


  1. A pretty disturbing article from start to finish.
    Apparently putlerstan is currently producing 7 times the ammo of the allies and 200 tanks/month.

    “President Joe Biden himself has said the United States will send troops to defend Taiwan if it is attacked.”

    Really? Did he say that? Not that I disagree, but how is it that he will fight for Taiwan but not Ukraine?
    He has no treaty obligation with Taiwan, but has a signed memorandum (Budapest), which supposedly obligated him to defend the integrity of Ukraine’s national borders?

    • I haven’t gone through and fact checked all that was written in the article, but was a bit surprised at suggestion of US troops in Taiwan also. Looks like we have approximately 40 atm, which could expand to 200. US relationship with Taiwan was spelled out in the Taiwan Relations Act ratified in 1979. I haven’t read it all yet but am going through it. With one word change Bill Clinton really gave Ukraine the shaft.

      • Biden will defend Taiwan… let’s see the people of Afghanistan may not see that, and although he is helping Ukraine somewhat is he really helping or is he just afraid of so called “escalation”. If he fears Russian escalation, a bear with no teeth or claws, does anyone really think he’s going to be strong against China. Not in my lifetime.

  2. This is both a wonderful and alarming article. It’s point is right on. Too bad the schmucks in DC can’t figure this out. Damn politicians.

  3. A good first step is to take a close look at what we spend our money on. The Pentagon is notorious in spending horrendous sums on items that could be had with a fraction of the cost in the open market. This has to stop!
    Moreover, not helping Ukraine does more to put us closer to a war with bat virus land than saving on some old equipment and decades old ammo, which would be costly anyway to get rid of before this day of war comes to pass. Now, it’s doing what it’s supposed to do and this without sacrificing a single American life. By showing bat virus land how serious we are, we do a lot to discourage that trash country to make a move on Taiwan. Weakness and cowardice has never frightened a dictatorship. It simply doesn’t work.
    On a final note, we should do everything possible to move away from bat virus land, economically. By destroying its economic base, we destroy its ability to keep arming itself. This should best be done in conjunction with all of our allies.

  4. to provide food for thought an extract from a text translated from French which is a reflection on the industrial bases of defense

    “The perverse effects of the new American defense industrial landscape

    Indeed, a few days ago, the former chief negotiator of the Pentagon’s arms programs and former vice-president of the giant Raytheon, drew up a scathing observation regarding the evolution of the US industrial and technological base which is, according to him, at the origin of the difficulties encountered by the Pentagon in modernizing its forces and meeting the challenge posed by Beijing and Moscow.

    Indeed, today, the major American defense companies, and in particular the Top 5 made up of Lockheed-Martin, Boeing, Raytheon, Northrop-Grumman and General Dynamics, have achieved such economic, social and political power that it It is impossible for the Pentagon to control the rise in equipment costs, due to a lack of competition.

    For example, the Stinger very short-range surface-to-air missile cost $25,000 in the early 1990s, compared to $400,000 today, or 7 times more expensive once inflation and technological developments are taken into account.

    US defense industry has increased prices well above inflation since 1993

    The Stingers sent to Ukraine by the United States cost the US Army $25,000 in the early 1990s. They are being replaced by Stingers purchased today for $400,000 from Raytheon.

    However, this situation is the consequence, according to Shay Assad, of decisions taken in 1993 by the American government, precisely to rationalize the American BITD by merging the approximately 50 industrial groups which had been engaged in fierce competition for decades at each call of offer from the Pentagon, in five large groups with exclusive prerogatives in the country.

    By proceeding in this way, the US government precisely wanted to reduce costs, but also to strengthen the power of its international industrial offer, with ambitions ultimately very close to those targeted by the European initiatives.

    Remember that at that time, for example, an American aircraft carrier deployed an onboard air group made up of 9 to 11 different types of aircraft, compared to 6 today.

    If today the American industrial offer is indeed significantly more rationalized, it has also experienced an unprecedented increase in costs, in all areas, precisely due to the hegemonic positions of these large groups which today is reflected even at the level contractual, as for the F-35.

    According to Shay Assad, the fact of having a competitive and non-centralized offer precisely makes it possible to avoid the creation of industrial potentates in hegemonic situations in the field of defense equipment, which ultimately proves much more beneficial to the armies and to their equipment capabilities.”

    • I’m not as negative as you. Capitalism has surely some negative qualities but it also carries something which definitively determinative…competition. It’s competition which will bring new technologies, new ways of looking at wars and how they’re conducted. Loki at Ukraine and it’s use of drones as an example. No company under a capitalistic society is immune to competition. IBM, XEROX and the list goes on where the basis of competition has redefined an industry. The defense industry will be no different. Unfortunately, it just takes time. IMHO

  5. Andrei Martyanov’s commentary on this topic:

    Too all the CRETINS posting here, head to the following very popular blog on the topic. My top reliable expert (by their fruits ye shall know them), a Russian living in Seattle. Most Americans are not intellectually capable of considering his arguments (wrote for a US naval magazine) but an expert nonetheless.Former Soviet naval officer, worked for many years in aeronautics as an engineer, both in Russia and the US.

    Come on, join in the comments. Let’s see what y’alls got. I’ll wager that you chickenshlts would prefer to stay in your echo chambers.

    • привет shit-kicker.
      You are posting kremlin propaganda on a pro-Ukraine site either because you are a halfwit or a putler ass-licker.
      My money is on both.

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