In early 2023, the U.S. transferred 300,000 155mm artillery shells from its War Reserve Material stockpile in Israel to Ukraine. At the time, it was the only conflict with heavy U.S. involvement. After Hamas’s Oct. 7 terrorist attack, that’s no longer true.
Now, Israel too has requested munitions, putting a strain on already stretched U.S. stockpiles and calling into question both the Defense Department’s munitions planning and the budgetary priorities of congressional appropriators. The U.S. military is already tasked to do more than it has been equipped to do. At present, our armed forces do not have the munitions needed for a contingency in the Indo-Pacific region, and we certainly aren’t producing enough munitions to sustain operations in all three theaters at once.
Even after doubling shell production, the U.S. produces only 28,000 per month. That means Ukraine’s current 155mm shell expenditure outstrips U.S. monthly production by a multiple of about 3.6.
Adding to the problem is Israel’s request for 155mm shells from the United States. But with U.S. global stockpiles severely depleted by the war in Ukraine, it remains to be seen where the Pentagon can find shells for Israel without diverting shells bound for Ukraine.
Poor munitions planning on the part of both the Pentagon and congressional appropriators could mean at least some of the Pacific theater’s War Reserve Material stockpile could be transferred, weakening U.S. capabilities for contingency situations in the Indo-Pacific. This hardly makes sense when the National Defense Strategy has identified China as the primary challenge to the United States.
But the Pentagon’s shortfall in artillery shells isn’t the only munitions planning issue. Israel has also requested precision-guided munitions such as Small Diameter Bombs and Joint Direct Attack Munitions. The U.S. has promised to deliver both, but it’s unclear how that can be done without inhibiting overall U.S. capacity for other contingency situations. According to procurement documents, fiscal 2022 U.S. purchases of Joint Direct Attack Munitions and Small Diameter Bombs totaled only approximately 3,000 and 2,000, respectively.
That’s fewer JDAMs and SDMs in a year than Israel used in six days. And FY23 procurements don’t make the situation much better.
Beyond the Pentagon’s past failures in munitions planning, its future planning might be even more worrying. Wargames have repeatedly shown that the U.S. will run out of critical munitions only eight days into a high-intensity conflict with China over Taiwan.
The Navy’s annual procurement of Tomahawk missiles and MK 48 torpedoes, for example, falls woefully short of the needs of the fleet. If all 73 Arleigh Burke-class destroyers are available, the Navy’s FY22 procurement of 70 Tomahawks only allows each to launch 0.96 Tomahawks. If all 22 Virginia-class submarines were available, the 58 MK 48 torpedoes procured by the Navy that fiscal year would not fill their 88 torpedo tubes even once.
Dipping into U.S. military inventory does not make the situation much better. An educated guess is that there are about 4,000 Tomahawks in the Navy’s possession. If 20% of the vertical launching system cells in the U.S. surface fleet and 100% of the VLS cells in the submarine fleet are equipped with Tomahawks, and if 80% of the U.S. surface fleet, 60% of U.S. attack submarines and 33% of U.S. strategic submarines are deployable in a conflict, then the Navy can fire roughly 2,300 Tomahawks without reloading.
In sum, the Navy’s Tomahawk inventory is so low that it likely can’t reload all its ships even once.
The situation is the same with most other munitions. Previously produced Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missiles total only about 3,000, not taking into account the hundreds already spent in combat. And the Long Range Anti-Ship Missile inventory likely does not exceed 120.
The U.S. military’s current mission is dependent on deterrence and delivery of munitions to allies. Its projected failure to do enough of the latter surely undermines the former in the minds of Chinese military planners.
It could get even worse: A fundamental precept of war is its unpredictability in both timing and contours.
America is preparing for a conflict with China over Taiwan, but North Korea could decide to invade South Korea at any time — and the most dangerous window might be while the U.S. is engaged in a war over Taiwan. The United States has treaty obligations to help South Korea defend itself, and expending munitions in such a war would further endanger America’s capacity to fight China.
Frederick the Great once said that when you defend everything, you defend nothing. With U.S. attention fixated on supplying Ukraine with munitions needed for its war with Russia, and a probable continuation of violence in the Middle East, the U.S. risks being drawn into fights in three regions at the same time. This will be more than the U.S. can manage with its current munitions stores.
It is more important than ever to prioritize use based on grand strategy and national interest, and to rework munitions acquisition and production plans to deter threats to America’s most vital interests.
As others have written, the first step in fixing America’s long-term munitions problem is the increased use of multiyear procurement authorities for munitions across the board. The use of multiyear contracts sends a long-term demand signal to industry that enables the defense-industrial base to both expand and quicken production of these munitions.
Likewise, multiyear buys have consistently been shown to decrease costs over time, resulting in a positive outcome both for the military and for the American taxpayer. To its credit, this fiscal year’s National Defense Authorization Act approves six new munitions for multiyear procurement, but this funding ultimately still depends on congressional appropriators, who still haven’t fully funded the multiyear procurement of munitions authorized in last year’s NDAA.
Wilson Beaver, a former Senate staffer and U.S. Army veteran, is the senior policy analyst for defense budgeting at the Heritage Foundation’s Center for National Defense. Jim Fein is a former member of the think tank’s Young Leaders Program.