The Ukraine War Exposes the US Military-Industrial Complex’s Lack of Readiness

The Ukraine War Exposes the US Military-Industrial Complex's Lack of Readiness

The Challenges of Supplying Ukraine’s War Effort

When I spoke to Ekateryna Derkach over a videoconference call on May 25, she looked bleary-eyed. The night before, Russian forces had launched 36 Iranian-designed Shahed drones toward key infrastructure and military targets in western regions of the country. In their apartment roughly 15 miles outside Kyiv, Ekateryna, her husband, Andrey, and her 6 and 12-year-old boys took cover in a hallway corridor and in the bathroom.

Russia’s aerial bombardments of Ukraine’s cities have left people in a state of constant high alert. But thankfully, casualties from these attacks have been increasingly rare, at least in Kyiv, which sits under a defensive umbrella of anti-aircraft systems, including US-made Patriot missile batteries, which in May were credited with shooting down 13 Kinzhal hypersonic missiles, some of the most sophisticated weapons in Russia’s arsenal.

However, Ukraine’s air defense and other core elements of its war effort rely on shrinking US and NATO supplies of weapons. The demands of the war have strained the country’s supply chain and those of its allies. Stockpiles of rockets, missiles, and the parts needed to build them are reaching dangerously low levels. The US has already stopped transferring Javelin anti-tank missiles, which were pivotal in stopping Russia’s offensive early in the conflict.

The war in Ukraine has exposed the challenges of keeping a modern army supplied in a prolonged conflict, calling for a rethink of the funding and structure of military supply chains. The future of the military-industrial complex may be far more decentralized, with small shops, tech startups, and mom-and-pop manufacturers feeding into the defense base. This model resembles Ukraine’s own defense industry, which has become small-scale and hyper-flexible, with drones and other devices being designed and built, often on the fly, in workshops and garages.

The United States has allocated over $48 billion in supplemental appropriations for security assistance to Ukraine since the war began in February 2022. Typically, this money would go to prime manufacturers who have existing relationships with suppliers. But the haphazard and hard-to-predict nature of the orders makes it risky for small manufacturers to invest in new facilities. This unpredictability presents a bottleneck in the supply chain.

While some larger production facilities have ramped up production, smaller facilities face challenges. Foundries that produce custom aluminum parts for Javelin missiles, for example, have difficulty scaling up due to worker shortages and the specialized nature of their work. The promise of on-time delivery is crucial, and training new engineers or technicians could threaten existing contracts. These smaller, specialized manufacturers often face limitations that prevent them from meeting the urgent demands of the war.

To address these challenges, Ukraine has turned to smaller businesses outside traditional acquisition channels. MacroFab, a Texas-based cloud manufacturing company, has worked with roughly 100 factories to ruggedize consumer-grade electronics for use by Ukrainian forces. Circuit boards to activate drone grenade drop kits and satellite base stations have been produced quickly to sustain Ukraine’s impact on the battlefield.

Drones have played a crucial role in Ukraine’s defense strategy, but they are quickly expended. Smaller companies like BRINC Drones have stepped in to deliver specialized drone models, often communicating directly with Ukrainian intelligence officers and military officials. The US has also looked to adapt civilian tech for the front line, working with companies like Teal and Red Cat to produce cost-effective drones with military specifications.

Building smart, rather than big, systems and trusting smaller, more innovative companies may be a way to fight wars without breaking the bank. Ukraine has showcased how it can weaponize consumer-grade drones using 3D printers and CNC lathe machines. This decentralized approach to defense manufacturing provides inspiration for the US and its traditional defense contractors to adapt to modern warfare.

The war in Ukraine has highlighted the challenges of supplying a modern army in a prolonged conflict. The need for more decentralized and flexible supply chains is evident. Smaller manufacturers and tech startups have played a crucial role in sustaining Ukraine’s war effort. As Ukraine continues its fight against Russian aggression, the lessons learned from its innovative defense industry may provide a blueprint for the future of military supply chains.