The Daily Telegraph
The West is running out of ammunition – but nitpicking officialdom is shooting the breeze
All of America is talking about a balloon and not in a fun, Winniethe-pooh sort of way. According to the US Department of Defence, a suspected Chinese “spy balloon” is hovering in the sky above Montana like a malignant jellyfish and, contrary to what you might think, it’s apparently not easy to shoot the thing down without risking lives on the ground. Secretary of State Antony Blinken was meant to be going to China on Sunday. The visit is off for now.
Earlier this week, meanwhile, the US military announced plans to increase its production of ammunition fivefold in the next two years to keep feeding the doggedly shell-hungry Ukrainian war machine. The most advanced weapons nowadays fire projectiles sparingly and precisely, but that is not what is happening in Ukraine, where a more traditional exchange of indiscriminate hellfire is taking place, at an estimated cost of at least 100,000 lives on each side so far. The US has (as usual) been the primary ammunition supplier, but all Western allies have run down their stocks alarmingly in the effort.
Together, the balloon and the bullets capture the scale of the military challenge facing free countries. The world is getting more hostile and we can afford to neglect neither cuttingedge, algorithmically driven surveillance threats, like windsurfing enemy balloons, nor old-school, big-ticket items such as bomb factories.
We know the US is prepared to throw big money at these challenges, unlike European countries. But even in America, the pillar of the free world, the exponential growth of the regulatory, administrative state, along with the incredible complexity of technologies and supply chains, casts doubt over the capacity of the state to do its job. The last time Western countries armed themselves on this scale, during the Cold War, our militaries were not generally required to contend with the same thicket of bureaucratic lethargy, intensive scrutiny, conflicting priorities and overlapping legal claims. In short, we know state capacity in many fields has withered – or, in Ben Wallace’s words, been “hollowed out”. What’s less clear is how we dismantle the huge barriers to rebuilding it.
If you think this is a theoretical question, think again. In the case of US ammunition production, the number of plants has shrivelled from 86 during the Second World War down to just 10 today. Granted, the current sites are more productive than the old ones, but that is still a severe shrinkage and a concentration risk in a set of ageing plants. Incredibly, given the US defence budget, investment in some of these sites has been so scarce that many workers are still required to pour explosives into shells by hand, a practice that in 2017 killed a man and risked production at one of the US’S principal arms factories.
Even before the war in Ukraine, the US government had recognised the need to upgrade the industry, unveiling a plan to funnel $16 billion (£13.3 billion) into modernisation over 14 years. A congressional hearing of military officials in March last year detailed “failing infrastructure”, “safety issues” and “outdated processes and equipment” at several plants that make up the core of US production. With a fivefold production increase now required, you might be imagining that a Rosie the Riveter, church-railings-forspitfires-style effort is now under way. Unsurprisingly, however, it doesn’t work like that anymore.
At the March hearing, for example, military leaders were at pains to emphasise that “future investments will minimise air emissions, increase wastewater treatment capability and […] minimise accidental discharges”. This isn’t just modern pettifogging. At one major munitions site in Tennessee, for example, next to a river that supplies public drinking water, the military’s open-air burning of hundreds of tons of plastic waste has been releasing toxic gas into the air for at least a decade, despite campaigners’ efforts. In 2017, the media site Propublica published a series of articles about how the Pentagon’s mismanagement of munitions production had “poisoned millions of acres and left Americans to guess at the threat to their health”. Suffice it to say, General Macarthur never had to put up with this sort of guff.
In classic, technocratic style, the modern US military seems to have responded to these challenges not by actually fixing the problems, but by creating increasingly complex layers of bureaucracy to “manage” the situation. A report from October last year by the General Accountability Office stated that the system for munitions procurement involves “complex relationships where many organisations are involved and have intersecting roles”, leading to “lack of clarity about roles and responsibilities”. In one case, it stated, the military office responsible for negotiating contracts rewrote the documents to lower fire safety standards in order to keep costs down. It was no skin off their noses: worker safety was another unit’s responsibility.
All of this, of course, is happening in the US, the world’s pre-eminent military power, where an understanding of the need for might to defend right has rarely wavered. Just imagine then, the scale of the challenge over here, where a large slice of our political class seems to believe that defence is some kind of optional extra or an unseemly evil.
In such a situation, there is almost no limit to the growth of bureaucratic hurdles, legal challenges and the funnelling of critical resources down blind alleys, like the Royal Air Force’s unforgivable distortion of its recruitment needs to hit diversity targets. Just imagine the uproar if the British Government attempted an expansion of munitions production on the same scale as the US. First question: have they submitted a fit and proper planning application? Second: how will this affect emissions targets?
The problem is not actually that we set high operational standards, even for bomb factories. Exploding production lines and toxic sludge are probably not signs of efficiency and reliability, after all. The problem is that, in the absence of clarity about our practical and moral mission, a tide of administrative bunkum rushes in to fill the gap. Competence is replaced by process, activity by the creation of more officialdom. This is the overriding theme of governmental failure in the developed world.
An optimist might argue that, in a true security crisis, in which we faced a direct, existential threat, we’d pull ourselves together. I believe that’s true. But the aim of military preparedness should be to avoid such a situation ever arising in the first place by projecting strength, commitment and capability. The war in Ukraine and China’s increasing aggression, on top of Covid, should force us to re-evaluate everything about the way the state operates. Instead, as military balloons go up across the world, we’re nitpicking, wasting time and shooting the breeze.
Even in the US, the armoury of the free world, the growth of the regulatory state threatens to stymie efforts to ramp up production