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New warning signs for U.S. defense industry

A US Patriot missile defense system during a joint Israeli-US military exercise
U.S. missile defense system during U.S.-Israeli military exercise. Photo: Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images

The U.S. has increased its missile use in recent years, and the weaknesses in the industrial base may hurt its ability to support that level of munition use going forward.

Why it matters: America faces national security threats around the world from countries like Iran, Russia, and North Korea, and the Pentagon's FY2017 Annual Industrial Capabilities Report paints a somewhat bleak picture of U.S. munition capabilities, identifying "critical components within the missile sector industrial base...at risk." Defense News' Aaron Mehta identifies the vulnerabilities as lack of "diversity," and "knowledge on how to develop new systems."

The report attributed vulnerabilities to "surge requirements" of the industry during times of conflict. Andrew Hunter, director of the Center for Strategic and International Studies' Defense-Industrial Initiatives Group, told Axios we "can and should be doing a better job at keeping industry at more of a steady pace."

"We really did a number on the defense industry in the last decade. ... If we got into a major conflict, we'd be behind the power curve with the supply chain."
— Andrew Hunter to Axios

The areas of highest risk, per the Pentagon's report:

  • Solid Rocket Motors: One of the two domestic suppliers of SRMs set to take over the majority of production. This could raise costs, decrease research and development efforts, and hurt security of supply, per the report.
  • Thermal Batteries: One company is making the vast majority of thermal batteries, which are used in all missiles and precision-guided munitions. The dependency on this one supplier puts the industry at risk and has hurt "[i]nvestments in improvements" to technologies.
  • Fuzes: An excess capacity of fuzes — used on all missile programs and munitions —  limits competition and improvements to the technology.
  • Small Turbine Engines: There will soon be only one supplier of small turbine engines — Williams International — as the other "cannot sustain themselves any longer."