In the closing moments of the 1970 film, Tora! Tora! Tora!, Japanese Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto remarks solemnly in the aftermath of the attack on Pearl Harbor, “I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve.” Those words, captured in Yamamoto’s personal diary, reflected a popular belief that the actions of December 7, 1941, would awaken the United States from her slumber and unleash her fury on the Axis powers.
But the sleeping giant was already awake. In truth, America broke from the inertia of isolationism with the Naval Act of 1938, which allocated over a billion dollars to increasing the strength of the Navy and spurred the boom in ship building that preceded the Two-Ocean Navy Act of 1940. And on December 29, 1940, President Franklin D. Roosevelt challenged private industry to “arm and support” the Allied powers, calling on the “Arsenal of Democracy” to shed the last vestiges of complacency and prepare for the war to come. Even as Japan launched its attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, America’s industrial might—the sleeping giant that so worried Yamamoto—had already mobilized for war.
By the time Japan formally surrendered on the deck of the USS Missouri on September 2, 1945, that sleeping giant had produced over 300,000 planes, 86,000 tanks, 6,000 ships, and 6.5 million rifles in support of the war effort. The impact of industrial mobilization transformed the American economy, and a post-war boom added 20 million more jobs over the next 25 years while doubling the size of the middle class. The gross national product, which entered the war at roughly $200 billion, exploded to $300 billion by 1950 and by 1960 topped $5oo billion. The isolationist malaise that typified American foreign policy during the interwar years was gone and the Unites States emerged from World War II as the wealthiest and most powerful nation in the world.
Despite this, in his farewell address President Dwight D. Eisenhower warned against the establishment of “military-industrial complex.” Eisenhower, the man who had led the Allies to victory in Europe and seen firsthand the fearsome power of America’s industrial might, had sincere concerns about creating an “immense military establishment” and a “large arms industry.” Where the industrial mobilization of the Second World War had leveraged the capacity of the entire production base, a military-industrial complex would leave our national security reliant on a handful of powerful—and increasingly influential—companies. Where industrialists like Henry Ford took great pride in producing volume while minimizing costs, those motivations—as well as scalability—would be lost in a military-industrial complex that existed solely to provide wartime materiel.
But here we are today.
Eighty years after the Arsenal of Democracy reached the peak of its capacity in World War II. More than 60 years since Ike’s dire—and unheeded—warning about the looming specter of an unchecked military-industrial complex. Over 20 years after the terror attacks of 9/11 and the launch of the Global War on Terror. Nearly two years since Russia launched a second unprovoked invasion in eight years into Ukraine. Today, America stands on the precipice of another great power competition with an industrial base unprepared for the scope and scale of such a conflict.
Somewhere, Roosevelt is rolling over in his grave and Eisenhower is shaking his head.
Russia’s brutal assault of Ukraine was an equally brutal wake-up call for the West. If Moscow’s 2014 annexation of Crimea hadn’t sent a strong enough signal, Putin’s 2022 attack on Ukrainian independence conveyed an uncomfortable truth: The Cold War had never ended, it had simply taken a 20-year strategic pause. It was time to return those coveted Cold War Recognition Certificates; the era of great power competition was back with a vengeance.
To our credit, we acknowledged the significance of a second Russian invasion to the broader question of European—and global—security and opened our security assistance war chest. In the eight years between invasions, we provided less than $3 billion in military assistance to Ukraine; after the second invasion, that number exploded to more than $44 billion. With that aid came the ammunition needed to confront a raging bear: more than 2 million 155mm artillery rounds, 800,000 105mm rounds, 400,000 mortar rounds, 1.8 million rounds of 25mm ammunition, and tens of thousands of rockets, missiles, and various forms of conventional ammunition.
Military aid to Ukraine—and subsequently, Israel—helped to prevent a Russian victory there and arguably to stave off a widening of the war, but at a cost. Such aid severely depleted existing ammunition stockpiles, and even with ramped-up production—currently nearly double pre-war rates—it will take years to replenish those stocks.
This is further complicated by budget uncertainty. Production is largely dependent on budget consistency; short-term continuing funding resolutions are anything but consistent, which puts any efforts to increase production in jeopardy. And as material demand increases to support expanded production, those costs are likely to increase and could have a dampening effect on production rates.
On the cusp of great power competition, such challenges offer a glimpse into our own future. The U.S. defense industrial base (DIB) isn’t ready for such a conflict, which would likely to be more reminiscent of World War II than contemporary military operations: protracted and deeply dependent on industrial capacity. And even in the event a conflict between major powers could be resolved quickly, it’s unlikely that our depleted stockpiles of materiel will be sufficiently recovered at any point in the next decade to allow for certain victory.
Add to that the increasing sophistication of our weapons systems and armaments. We’re no longer talking about Henry Ford retooling production lines to build jeeps. Instead, we’re talking about systems like stealth aircraft and armaments such as long-range anti-ship missiles, which are already complex in their own right and dependent on complicated—and often fragile—supply chains. Ford’s Willow Run plant, which produced 70% of the B-24s that saw action in WWII, took a full two years to build. In any future conflict, two years is a luxury we won’t have.
Further complicating matters is a rapidly shrinking vendor base to support defense needs. In 1985, the defense industry workforce was 3 million strong; today, that number is just 1.1 million. Between 2016 and 2022, the number of businesses supporting the defense sector dropped by 22%, including 43% of the small business that generally provided niche—but essential—capabilities.
Where does that leave us? Vulnerable. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a brief battle over the freedom of Taiwan or a major European war. Much of our existing stocks are depleted to levels that could be exhausted with a week of intense fighting, and we’re incapable of sustaining any fight long enough to allow for the lead time required to ramp up industrial production to support a long war.
In an era of great power competition, we cannot wait for someone else to awaken the sleeping giant. Our own complacency has allowed the arsenal of democracy to sleep long enough; it’s past time to stop hitting the snooze button. If we intend to persevere in great power competition, two keystones need to fall in place, and soon.
First, we need a comprehensive National Defense Industrial Strategy, one that derives from the broad goals set forth in the National Security Strategy and is fundamentally tied to the National Defense Strategy. Fortunately, the Department of Defense is on the verge of releasing such a strategy in the coming weeks. Second, we need the resources required to realize the goals of a National Defense Industrial Strategy. That will require a Congress not driven by short-term thinking and funding resolutions, a Congress focused on the security of the nation.
A strategy without resources is a wish list. And we’re going to need a lot more than a wish list if we find ourselves at war again anytime soon.