Opinion | The Pentagon should use its new wartime purchasing power wisely

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It is a measure of global instability that the $858 billion Pentagon budget Congress approved last month included a provision that authorized the military, for the next two years, to adopt wartime purchasing practices. If lawmakers follow through with the money, weapons makers are in for a bonanza. Congress should order its next steps carefully.

Normally, the military signs long-term, noncompetitive contracts chiefly with firms which produce big-ticket items that take decades to design, engineer and produce, such as ships, aircraft and satellites. Tucked into the new budget, however, is an “emergency” provision allowing the Pentagon to sign multiyear, noncompetitive agreements to produce more run-of-the-mill items: munitions, missiles, rockets and other existing systems. That’s a departure from current practice.

The unorthodox bulk-buying approach should enable the Pentagon, at least in theory, to buy these weapons at a lower price. That’s important because the United States needs to quickly replace the thousands of weapons sent since last spring to Ukraine. The United States and European nations just announced tank shipments to Ukraine, but the United States is going through all sorts of military hardware, such as artillery shells, and faster than anyone anticipated.

Yet the Pentagon’s new budget, backed by a bipartisan group of senators, would do far more than replenish U.S. stockpiles. It lays the foundation for a vastly revitalized defense industrial base — and does so with one eye on the People’s Republic of China.

Since the end of the Cold War, the United States has continued to buy some weapons each year in small quantities, while relying on existing stockpiles for many others. Many of these systems were developed a generation ago, upgraded and improved over the years and, fortunately, rarely used in battle. In some cases, the Pentagon long ago stopped buying many of them. The United States last bought the Stinger, the shoulder-mounted antiaircraft missile system first used in the early 1980s, in 2004. The assembly line that produced the HIMARS rocket system, which has performed so well in Ukraine, shut down in 2014 and 2015 before restarting in 2016. Dusting off other assembly lines also makes sense.

The question is how many weapons are necessary — and how soon? The quantities imagined by the latest budget are far in excess of what is required to replenish those sent to Ukraine. Congress authorized 700 copies of the HIMARS platform at a moment when the Pentagon has so far shipped only 20 launchers to Ukraine. Meanwhile, the budget authorizes the purchase of 2,600 Harpoon anti-ship missiles and nearly 1,000 long-range anti-ship missiles — weapons designed for a naval battle in the South China Sea rather than a fight on the plains of eastern Ukraine.

In all, perhaps as many as 25 different assembly lines could ramp up or restart if this measure is fully funded by appropriators. Contractors insist that they needed a clearer signal from the Pentagon before they took steps to “warm up” old production lines. That claim, in the face of perhaps the richest market for weapons sales since the 1980s, is difficult to credit. Congress gave the military $44.6 billion more this year than the Pentagon requested; even at accelerated rates, most of the weapons Congress wants to purchase on an emergency basis cannot be produced inside of a few years. In some cases, the wait will be much longer.

That highlights the other reason for the accelerated weapons buying: deterrence. The rapid drawdown in munitions by Ukraine could put the United States at a disadvantage in the event of a military emergency. Lawmakers know that Beijing and Moscow monitor Pentagon procurement schedules closely. The bipartisan group of senators who wrote the provision this past fall did so just as Republicans let it be known that Ukraine would not get “a blank check” if they took control of the House. This new authority is designed to send a clear signal to America’s rivals. As William LaPlante, the Pentagon’s acquisition czar put it in late October, “Production is deterrence.”

We support a defense industrial base that is warmed up and ready to go. And there is no reason to think the war in Ukraine will end soon. But there are risks to engaging in a weapons-buying spree. As lawmakers consider committing the money the Pentagon would need, Congress should insist that the military use its new authority to bargain hard for better prices — and find a middle ground between replenishing its depleted stockpiles and giving away the store to contractors already enjoying a new golden age. Lawmakers should approve only the funds that the Pentagon can responsibly manage.

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