Commentary

The Organic Defense Industrial Base Is Our Military ‘Offensive Line’

Overcoming years of neglecting the organic defense industrial base will require a comprehensive recovery plan.

I live in the south and I’m an SEC football fan. The University of Alabama is NOT my team, but I am impressed by their annual performance… what college football fan isn’t! Last season, their quarterback was Mac Jones. On his own he was terrific, but it was his offensive line that made him a Heisman finalist. The Alabama head coach gets it: great offensive lines help make superstar quarterbacks and, more importantly, national championship teams.

The Department of Defense needs to take a similar approach with its organic defense industrial base.

Sustaining Weapon Systems

New weapon systems like the F-35, Columbia Class submarine, and Future Vertical Lift are the high-profile “quarterbacks” of our national defense, garnering all the headlines.

However, they are ineffective without a viable sustainment capability supporting them – their “linemen” – to include a strong organic industrial base. Sustainment is what ensures our nation’s warriors have the game-changing capabilities necessary to create the effects needed to defend our country.

US Marine Corps F35-B prepares to land on the flight deck of the amphibious assault ship USS Makin Island.
US Marine Corps F35-B prepares to land on the flight deck of the amphibious assault ship USS Makin Island. Photo: Patrick Crosley/US Army

Further, to be successful, our nation needs the complementary capabilities of both the organic and commercial sectors to support its plethora of DoD weapon systems. The organic element ensures competition, provides our country with a needed surge capability, and often serves as “the source of last resort” for aging systems.

Unfortunately, our nation has for years significantly underinvested in the organic portion of the defense industrial base team.

State of US Organic Industrial Base

Recent reports highlighting the state of organic shipyards, organic depots, and ammunition plants underscore the point. The organic defense industrial base is in desperate need of investment if it is to remain efficient and relevant.

In a 2018 report, the Navy estimated it would have to spend $21B over 20 years to optimize its four organic shipyards.

In a 2019 report, the Government Accountability Office stated that, “The condition of facilities at a majority of the Department of Defense’s depots is poor and the age of equipment is generally past its useful life, but the services do not consistently track the effect that these conditions have on depot performance.”

Finally, the Army’s lead for ammunition plants noted in 2020 that, “Some of those facilities look like they date from the World War II era… we’ve got to modernize those to get capability for the future.”

Having an organic industrial base in its current state of neglect has never been acceptable, but it was adequate to support the Global War on Terror. With a pivot to the Pacific and recognition of an era of Great Power Competition, not only is it unacceptable, it is the recipe for failure in a future conflict.

Responsibility

Congress and the current administration have a responsibility to the nation and our allies not only to procure the best weapon systems, but to effectively sustain them as well. This requires a strong defense industrial base, both commercial and organic.

Overcoming years of neglecting the organic defense industrial base will require a comprehensive recovery plan, and then sustained funding to execute the plan. Congress, President Biden, the Office of the Secretary of Defense, and Military Services must work together to make this a reality.

Our nation can continue to focus only on procuring the “quarterbacks” for our national defense, or it can also provide those weapon systems with a world-class “offensive line:” a highly efficient and effective organic defense industrial base. The choice is ours to make, and our adversaries are watching our actions.


Headshot Robert McMahonRobert McMahon is former Assistant Secretary of Defense for Sustainment and a retired Air Force Major General with over 38 years of experience in weapon system sustainment.


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