By Michael D. White, author and freelance writer
Global defense spending has surged ahead over the past several years, reaching the record high level of $2.1 trillion for 2021.
At the same time, spending, while registering a seven percent year-on-year growth, amid strong tailwinds and favorable underlying forces led by tectonic shifts in traditional geopolitical dynamics and equations following China’s military ascendance and Russian regional resurgence marking the return of the great power competition in the 21st century, according to the latest Global Aerospace and Defense Market – 2022-2027.
The rise of China and its military posturing in the Asia-Pacific region have combined with the ongoing Russian incursion into Ukraine have, it says, “collectively led to significant turbulence and a subsequent, massive surge in defense spending across APAC & Europe which is likely to be sustained at least through the end of current decade.”
As a result, the report says, the U.S. defense industrial base “is preparing to switch to afterburner mode amid increasing environmental uncertainty and volatility; political tensions; and the risks of escalations following the virtual evaporation of traditional, rule-based world order with significant investments towards R&D on next-generation systems & technologies.”
Money & Specific Threats
In December 2022, President Biden signed the Fiscal Year 2023 National Defense Authorization Act into law, while both the House and Senate passed the FY 2023 defense funding bill. All in all, the $773 billion funding package includes a $45 billion increase in funding over the Biden administration’s initial FY 2023 budget proposal.
According to the Department of Defense, the FY2023 Budget gives the agency the green light “to develop, procure, and modernize capabilities to ensure combat-credible forces across all domains to address the pacing challenge from the People’s Republic of China and to address acute threats from Russia.”
Topping the agency’s ‘To Do’ list are the implementation of a Nuclear Enterprise Modernization strategy to recapitalize all three legs of the nuclear triad with investments in the construction of a Columbia-class ballistic missile submarine; and the development of the B-21 long-range strike bomber and the long-range stand-off (LRSO) missile.
Investments in so-called ‘lethal air forces’ include the acquisition of 61 F-35 Joint Strike Fighter aircraft; two dozen F-15EX fighter and 15 KC-46 Pegasus refueling aircraft; and further expansion of the Air Force’s Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) capabilities.
The Navy will add a pair of Arleigh Burke-class destroyers, a single frigate; and two Virginia-class submarines to the fleet, while the nations Combat Effective Ground Forces—U.S. Army and U.S. Marine Corps—will add 72 armored multi-purpose vehicles; and 74 amphibious combat and 3,721 joint light tactical vehicles.
Missile Defeat and Defense investments will include funding for ground-based midcourse (GMD) and improved homeland defense/next generation interceptors (NGI); terminal high altitude area defense (THAAD) ballistic missile defense systems; Patriot advanced capability (PAC-3) missile enhancement; and long-range, advanced [artillery] fires, including funds to procure highly-survivable, precision-strike, and long-range fires—from hypersonic to subsonic —across the joint force.
Space and space-based systems will see some $27.6 billion earmarked for space-based overhead persistent infrared (OPIR) systems; a pair of Global Positioning System (GPS) satellites and six launch Vehicles for National Security Space Launch (NSSL) and Rocket System Launch Program (RSLP) operations.
While the increase in funding is a welcome boost to the nation’s defense capabilities, continuing defense equipment assistance to Ukraine necessitates production rate ramp-ups and increases on key programs to backfill inventories across the U.S. and its NATO allies—an analysis underscored in Empty Bins in a Wartime Environment, a highly-detailed report compiled by Seth G. Jones, Senior Vice President at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CISC) in Washington, D.C.
The U.S. defense industrial base, says Jones, “is not adequately prepared for the competitive security environment that now exists. It is currently operating at a tempo better suited to a peacetime environment.”
In a major regional conflict—such as a war with China in the Taiwan Strait—Jones said, “the U.S. use of munitions would likely exceed the current stockpiles of the U.S. Department of Defense, leading to a problem of ‘empty bins.’”
According to Jones, the results of a series of CSIS war games, for instance, show that the U.S. “would likely run out of some munitions—such as long-range, precision-guided munitions—in less than one week in a Taiwan Strait conflict. These shortfalls would make it extremely difficult for the United States to sustain a protracted conflict—and, equally concerning, the deficiencies undermine deterrence.”
The games also highlighted that the U.S. defense industrial base lacks adequate surge capacity for a major war.
These problems are particularly concerning since China is heavily investing in munitions and acquiring high-end weapons systems and equipment five to six times faster than the United States, according to some U.S. government estimates quoted by Jones in the report.
In addition, “some U.S. programs and regulations, such as the U.S. Foreign Military Sales (FMS) program and International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR), are outdated for a wartime environment and need to deliver weapons systems more rapidly to key allies and partners.”
Growing strategic competition with countries such as China and Russia, which are attempting to export weapons systems and technology, he found, “threatens to offset the United States’ competitive advantage.”
In January, the ranking member of the House Armed Service Committee said retiring legacy guided-missile cruisers, Littoral Combat Ships, and older C-130 transport aircraft “is the best way to free up money for information technology and systems needed for future security.”
Speaking at a Brookings Institution forum, Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.) said, “[HASC chair] Rep Mike Rogers (R-Ala.) and I are of one mind on this…that’s the biggest continuous fight we have” on Capitol Hill over preserving legacy systems at the expense of innovation.
He added, “We’ve really got to update the military to the modern fight and the modern fight starts with information technology,” including missiles, missile defense, unmanned aircraft, and ships in the list of future military needs.
“This doesn’t mean we don’t need aircraft carriers and F-35s” but maybe fewer of them, Smith said, asserting that “the rate of development in the Defense Department is too still.”
The Pentagon, he said, “is set up to run like a 1950 car company,” not like a 21st-century business. He cited the Defense Innovative Unit as an example of “what can happen to a good idea when it leaves the research and development stage to enter the department’s acquisition process, in which it takes two years to buy a platform or system.”
In that time, he said, “you lose the innovative technology” because it is now outdated. Likewise, Smith questioned whether the Pentagon encourages innovative thinking over completing each of the steps necessary to make something into a program of record in the budget.
The example he used was supplying the Ukrainians with shotguns to down the Iranian-made drones being used by Russian forces versus “developing a weapon that will take time and money to accomplish the same end.”
Rep. Smith told the attendees at the Brookings Institute conference that the message to China over Taiwan should be: “Don’t do this; it will not end well,” citing a ‘war game’ report conducted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies looking at the possible outcomes if Beijing tried to invade Taiwan.
“I think we’re in a lot better shape than we were” in deterring Chinese ambitions toward the island, he said. Looking at China’s actions now, “they basically want greater freedom to do what they want to do like illegal fishing and asserting territorial claims.”
The Chinese leadership plays up “the century of humiliation” where Western powers wrested concessions from the imperial and weak republic governments in trade and autonomy to act as they saw fit inside its borders.
But, Smith quickly added, China’s leaders “are not nihilists; they’re not suicidal. The world has to be big enough for both of us.”
The year-long war in Ukraine “has also exposed serious deficiencies in the U.S. defense industrial base. U.S. assistance to Ukraine has been critical to halting Russian revanchism and sending a message to China about the costs and risks of aggression—and needs to continue,” wrote Jones in the widely circulated report.
But, he adds, “It has also depleted U.S. stocks of some types of weapons systems and munitions, such as Stinger surface-to-air missiles, 155 mm howitzers and ammunition, and Javelin anti-tank missile systems—especially the command launch units.”
The U.S. “has been slow to replenish its arsenal, and the Department of Defense has only placed on contract a fraction of the weapons it has sent to Ukraine. Many U.S. allies and partners in Europe also have defense industrial bases that are unprepared for major war, heavily reliant on the United States, and chronically underfunded.”
Further, the Empty Bins in a Wartime Environment report concluded that “the development of next generation defense systems and technologies continues unabated to match near-peer adversaries in terms of capabilities and to maintain traditional U.S. military overmatch over adversaries leading to continued funding for development of strategic programs and technologies, with the U.S. R&D outlay having grown by 24 percent between 2012 and 2021.” This is likely to be sustained over medium term with the U.S defense budget likely to be over $800 billion for FY2023, the report concluded.
Concern for adequate funding for the nation’s defense systems was voiced by Eric Fanning, CEO of the Aerospace Industries Association in a recent letter to leaders of the House and Senate.
“While we commend members of Congress for the desire to act as responsible stewards of taxpayer dollars, cutting spending for our national defense and other key agencies like NASA and the FAA does just the opposite,” he wrote.
“Congress must continue bipartisan support for strong investments in the Department of Defense, which received overwhelming bipartisan bicameral support as recently as December and consistently over the last few years.”
The U.S. has been a leading provider of security assistance to Ukraine over the past decade, particularly since Russia launched its renewed and expanded invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.
From March 2014, when Russia first invaded Ukraine and annexed the Crimea, through this past January, the U.S. has committed more than $29.9 billion in security assistance “to help Ukraine preserve its territorial integrity, secure its borders, and improve inter-operability with NATO,” according to the Congressional Research Service.
On Ukraine, Rep. Smith said, Putin’s “maximalist goals have not changed” in bringing it totally under Moscow’s control. “The first step is to stop them,” and the U.S., its allies and partners cooperating to support the Ukrainians through this spring.
He added that talks are continuing between Kyiv and Washington on how to proceed. But for now, “Putin made his choice” to continue fighting.
In January, President Biden gave the go-ahead to ship more than 30 M-1A2 Abrams tanks to Ukraine for deployment against the Russians.
Powered by a 1,500 hp gas-turbine engine with a top speed of 42 mph and a range of 265 miles, the General Dynamics-built Abrams weighs in at 70 tons each, and are equipped with a 120 mm main gun with armor-piercing capabilities; advanced targeting systems; an on-board position/navigation (POSNAV) system; and ultra-dense depleted uranium armor.
The U.S. will also send RIM-7 Sea Sparrows anti-air missiles to Ukraine as part of Washington’s latest military aid package. The missiles will be used in conjunction with Ukraine’s Soviet-era BUK anti-air missile system, Politico reported. The missiles are part of a $2.85 billion presidential drawdown announced Friday.
As part of Washington’s military aid package, the White House has also authorized the shipment of 50 Bradley infantry fighting vehicles; 100 M113 armored personnel carriers; 55 mine resistant ambush protected vehicles; 138 high-mobility multipurpose wheeled vehicles; 18 self-propelled howitzers; and 30 towed howitzers.
- Louisiana-based Metal Shark will send six of its maritime combat vessels to Ukraine as part of the White House’s recently unveiled $450 million aid deal. The latest assistance is going to Ukraine through the presidential drawdown authority, which means the U.S. is sending supplies it already has. According to a news release from Metal Shark, the company is producing 17 additional vessels that can be sent to Ukraine. These include 10 38-foot Defiant pilothouse patrol vessels, four 38-foot Defiant center console patrol vessels and three 36-foot Fearless high-performance military interceptor vessels.
While the plan to send these boats to Ukraine was already in place, Metal Shark sped up its timeline due to the Russian invasion, the company said.
- NASA and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has created a collaborative partnership to demonstrate a nuclear thermal rocket engine in space, an enabling capability for NASA crewed missions to Mars.
NASA and DARPA will partner on the Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations, or DRACO, program.
Using a nuclear thermal rocket allows for faster transit time, reducing risk for astronauts. Reducing transit time is a key component for human missions to Mars, as longer trips require more supplies and more robust systems. Maturing faster, more efficient transportation technology will help NASA meet its Moon to Mars Objectives.
Other benefits to space travel include increased science payload capacity and higher power for instrumentation and communication.
In a nuclear thermal rocket engine, a fission reactor is used to generate extremely high temperatures. The engine transfers the heat produced by the reactor to a liquid propellant, which is expanded and exhausted through a nozzle to propel the spacecraft. Nuclear thermal rockets can be three or more times more efficient than conventional chemical propulsion.
The last nuclear thermal rocket engine tests conducted by the United States occurred more than 50 years ago under NASA’s Nuclear Engine for Rocket Vehicle Application and Rover projects.
- The Marine Corps used a new Pentagon program designed to quickly prototype systems for conflict in the Pacific to buy two unmanned aerial vehicles for $15.5 million.
The contract with San Diego-headquartered Kratos Defense & Security Solutions, Inc. for the pair of XQ-58A Valkyrie ‘loyal wingman’ drones was awarded in December and was bought through the Naval Air Warfare Center Aircraft Division under the Department of Defense Rapid Defense Experimentation Reserve (RDER).
The Valkyries were developed by the Air Force Research Laboratory to be a high-speed, low-cost aircraft developed for the AFRL’s Low-Cost Attritable Aircraft Technology (LCAAT) project.
The XQ-58As can operate without a runway and carry a variety of payloads from weapons to communication relays at a range of about 3,000 nautical miles with a cruising speed of about 550 miles per hour, according to Kratos.
In addition to launching from land, Kratos developed a version of the UAV that can be moved in a standard shipping container. Both the Air Force and Marines are developing expeditionary aviation concepts for their respective services.
- Colorado-based Boom Supersonic has broken ground on the construction of its Overture Superfactory in Greensboro, North Carolina.
The Overture Superfactory is a state-of-the-art manufacturing facility located on a 62-acre campus at the Piedmont Triad International Airport.
When completed, the facility will house the final assembly line, as well as test facility, and customer delivery center for Boom’s flagship supersonic airliner, Overture.
North Carolina economists estimate that the full Boom manufacturing program will grow the state’s economy by at least $32.3 billion over 20 years.
In addition to Boom’s job creation in the state, the company is creating over 200 internships for students in North Carolina public universities, community colleges, and trade schools to build the next generation of supersonic workers.
Overture’s order book, including purchases and options from American Airlines, United Airlines, and Japan Airlines, stands at 130 aircraft.
Boom is working with Northrop Grumman for government and defense applications of Overture. Suppliers and partners collaborating with Boom on the Overture program include Collins Aerospace; Eaton; Florida Turbine Technologies; GE Additive; Safran Landing Systems; StandardAero; and the United States Air Force.
- Weber State University in Ogden, Utah, is using 3D printing to advance its research on composite materials that support northern Utah’s aerospace and defense ecosystem.
The university’s Miller Advanced Research and Solutions Center recently upgraded and installed the Impossible Objects Composite-Based Additive Manufacturing system, or CBAM-2. The machine prints composite materials that can then be used to design parts for a range of high-tech applications.
Located near Hill Air Force Base, Utah, the MARS Center— which opened in August 2022— brings together Weber State students and faculty with industry experts who can apply innovative solutions to real-world problems, especially in the realm of national defense.
The CBAM 3D Printer from Illinois-based Impossible Objects Inc. is among the first advanced manufacturing technologies to be installed and used at the new facility.
- Electra.aero, Inc., has been selected by the U.S. Air Force’s AFWERX innovation arm for a Strategic Funding Increase (STRATFI) award that secures up to $85 million to fund the company’s development of a full-scale pre-production prototype electric Short Takeoff and Landing (eSTOL) aircraft.
Designed for operations from soccer field-sized spaces, Electra’s eSTOL “represents a new class of aircraft, characterized by helicopter-like operational flexibility with performance and operating costs better than comparable fixed-wing aircraft,” the Virginia-headquartered company said.
- NASA has selected Boeing to lead the development and flight testing of a full-scale Transonic Truss-Braced Wing (TTBW) demonstrator aircraft.
When combined with expected advancements in propulsion systems, materials and systems architecture, a single-aisle airplane with a TTBW configuration could reduce fuel consumption and emissions up to 30 percent relative to today’s most efficient single-aisle airplanes, depending on the mission.
The SFD program aims to advance the civil aviation industry’s commitment to reaching net zero carbon emissions by 2050.
Ultrathin wings braced by struts with larger spans and higher-aspect ratios could eventually accommodate advanced propulsion systems that are limited by a lack of underwing space in today’s low-wing airplane configurations.
For the demonstrator vehicle, Boeing will use elements from existing vehicles and integrate them with all-new components. NASA’s funding through the SFD Space Act Agreement totals $425 million.
- ThinkOrbital, a space infrastructure startup, is designing an orbital platform aimed at commercial businesses, military and government agencies that want to manufacture products in orbit or recycle debris.
The Lafayette, Colorado-based company last year lost out in NASA’s competition to develop commercial space station concepts and “is now working on a new product that it believes is more viable,” according to Lee Rosen, ThinkOrbital’s co-founder, president and chief strategy officer.
“The technologies required to build platforms in low Earth orbit already exist,” Rosen recently told SpaceNews. “But they need to be engineered so structures can be assembled autonomously and scalable for different customers.”
The company’s spherical habitat, called ThinkPlatform, would be assembled in space using a robotic arm and could operate as a component of a larger commercial station or docked with a space vehicle like SpaceX’s Starship.
Earlier this year ThinkOrbital—with partners Redwire, KMI, and Arizona State University—won two research contracts worth $260,000 under the U.S. Space Force Orbital Prime program for in-space servicing, assembly and manufacturing.
Rosen said that plan calls for refining the design concept for a space structure that could be used for debris removal and recycling.