9th December 2023 – (Washington) As the conflict in Ukraine drags into its second year, cracks are appearing in America’s ability to sustain massive deliveries of weaponry overseas. Once proudly deemed the “arsenal of democracy,” the US military-industrial complex risks overstretching. Meanwhile, political infighting paralyses fresh funding to replenish depleted stocks and fulfil commitments to allies. The upshot is a crisis of American hard power, with global implications.
The latest warning sign came this week as the White House pleaded unsuccessfully for $60 billion in additional military and economic assistance for Kyiv in 2023. Despite President Biden’s warnings of dire consequences should aid lapse, his plea fell on deaf ears as the Senate rejected the Ukraine supplemental package amid partisan squabbling.
With existing Drawdown Authority funds for immediate weapon transfers to Ukraine dwindling, limits on America’s sponsorship of proxies abroad are emerging. Since peaking at over $5 billion in January 2023, monthly Presidential Drawdown packages have declined precipitously throughout the year, averaging just $225 million in November.
This decline in ad hoc equipment transfers reflects growing reluctance at the Pentagon to keep draining U.S. stockpiles without Congressional replenishment. America’s defence bureaucracy is waving a red flag that its capacity for unbridled arms donations abroad is not infinite.
The impacts on the battlefield in Ukraine are already palpable as Ukrainian forces adjust to reduced U.S. and Western artillery, ammunition and missile support. With Russia outproducing the West in shells, Ukraine’s offensive options have evaporated, forcing a shift to fixed defences. America’s waning military aid risks leaving Kyiv vulnerable in the face of any renewed Russian offensive.
Meanwhile, the failure to pass supplemental funding for Ukraine in 2022 does not bode well for bipartisanship next year with control of Congress divided. Yet America’s armaments industry and global arms pipeline depend on continued Congressional budgets to finance production. As political dysfunction deepens, so too does doubt around Washington’s reliability as an ally.
This deterioration of America’s role as the world’s preeminent arms exporter serving partner interests is also evident in relations with Taiwan and Israel. With China increasingly exerting pressure on Taiwan, the White House has vowed unprecedented military aid to strengthen Taipei’s deterrence capabilities. However, the U.S. weapons industry is already stretched thin fulfilling demands from Europe and the Middle East. Rhetorical commitments to Taiwan risk falling victim to supply chain limitations.
Israel too has voiced concerns over delays in receiving ammunition and equipment from US firms, despite its longstanding privileged access to American gear. Worries are mounting in Tel Aviv about U.S. capacity to keep up with Israel’s operational military needs while managing other global commitments. America’s struggles as an arms exporter undermine its relationships with security partners.
The consequences of this U.S. defence industrial overextension ripple far beyond Ukraine, Taiwan and Israel. Firstly, cracks in America’s image as the world’s military backstop undermine its global leadership credentials. If the “arsenal of democracy” is seen as worn out and distracted, what messages does this send about U.S. staying power in the rules-based international order it founded?
Adversaries like China and Russia are already seizing this narrative, portraying America as a declining power unable to match its grand strategic pronouncements with concrete action. Meanwhile, allies and partners weighing regional security choices may hedge away from over-reliance on a US military-industrial complex apparently limited in surge capacity.
Secondly, as other major arms suppliers like China, Russia and France assess opportunities, global weapons proliferation may worsen. Rather than curbing armed conflict, lapses in U.S. exports may open space for alternate vendors with fewer ethical limits on sales. This risks fueling instability from Africa to Latin America as new weapons flood hotspots.
Finally, scarce American military resources risks stoking zero-sum thinking in Washington, where commitments to partners are weighed in direct trade-offs rather than shared interests. Reduced U.S. arms access risks sowing divisions between allies as they compete for limited supplies in a more transactional paradigm. Taiwan, Israel, Ukraine and others may find their lobbying for weapons prioritized according to mercantile US calculations rather than strategic realities.
Therefore, the emerging cracks in America’s armour as the globe’s foremost arms exporter have profound geostrategic implications. But solutions exist if Washington can deliver enlightened leadership. Streamlining bureaucracy and bolstering efficiency in the military-industrial complex is achievable through upskilling, technology adoption and smarter procurement practices.
Equally, diplomatically insulating arms deliveries to allies from partisan domestic politics is essential to restore the reliability of U.S. defence assurances. Bipartisan consultation on arms export strategy and implementation could reduce seesawing commitments driven by election cycles. Emphasising shared interests with security partners rather than transactional leverage also helps sustain access to US weapons that allies often integrate into their long-term defence planning.
Investing in the resilience and output of America’s manufacturing base is crucial too, via tax incentives and Buy American provisions that shore up supply chains and production capacity. While boosting industry competitiveness, quality norms that prevent profiteering must be strengthened. Ultimately, the U.S. government must redouble public-private coordination to meet defence industry demand spikes during crisis periods.
This also requires openness to allies’ domestic arms production capabilities. Facilitating licenses for trusted partners to manufacture US-origin systems locally could alleviate pressures on America’s overloaded factory lines. Pooled research and development initiatives that allow collaborative weapons design between Western militaries can also foster interoperability and burden-sharing.
There are no quick fixes to renew American leadership as the globe’s arsenal of choice but this week’s failure to rally consensus in Washington to equip a wartime ally highlights strains in America’s military backbone. Without concerted efforts to invest in industrial-political resilience, the US risks accelerated erosion of its primacy as an underwriter of the liberal international order. An America that cannot robustly arm its friends abroad is hardly “back” at all.