Small Supply Chain Disruptions Could Completely Halt the U.S. Military

The military’s dependence on a small number of defense suppliers is proving dangerous.

By Joanna Button

What happened: In June 2021, an explosion in a Louisiana black powder factory destroyed the building’s equipment. It was the Department of Defense’s sole domestic source of black powder, an explosive—with no substitutes—used to produce over 300 different types of munition. U.S. military contractors have since been depleting the country’s stockpile of black powder.

History: After the Cold War, the Pentagon pressured the country’s top defense companies to consolidate in a push to cut costs. Now, three American companies supply 90 percent of the Pentagon’s missiles. The number of major arms suppliers to the Pentagon has decreased from dozens in the ‘90s to just five.

The issue: Companies that supply intermediate products (like black powder) have followed a similar pattern. Because the Pentagon’s demand for such goods fluctuates, the production is often only profitable enough to sustain one firm. This is called the “single source” problem. The Louisiana explosion brought this issue to light: A single event in a lower-tier production facility can disrupt the entire supply chain and leave the U.S. military vulnerable. Warnings of this possibility were spreading even in 1998.

The big picture: The U.S. military faces many problems: a lack of skilled workers in the defense industry, low military enlistment, microchip shortages, and a depleted oil reserve. It has decreased U.S. and NATO stockpiles by supplying Ukraine with military equipment and is dependent on adversaries like Russia and China to supply vital, rare metals. Experts say the supply chain could crumble in a large-scale war.

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