The group leading the effort comprises officials from across the Pentagon, including the acquisition and policy offices, as well as the armed services. They seek to replicate the efforts of another team of Defense and State Department officials that has been working on military aid for Ukraine, according to the people, one of them an administration official, granted anonymity to speak about internal matters that have not been announced. The existence of the group has not been previously reported.
The new effort is the latest sign of the administration’s urgency when it comes to arming Israel, and also gives an early look at the challenge facing the U.S. as it speeds weapons and equipment for two overseas wars at once.
Israel has already used up more than 8,000 precision munitions, and with Hezbollah looming on its northern border and the war showing little sign of ending, the government is eager to restock.
Many of those same munitions are also key to American war plans in the Indo-Pacific and elsewhere and have been rushed to Ukraine over the past year.
The need to shuttle supplies for the Ukraine and Israeli wars is creating an “inflection point” for America’s defense industry, said Dak Hardwick, vice president of International Affairs at the Aerospace Industries Association, an industry trade group.
“There has not been a time in the past 30 years where you essentially have had two real conflicts happening at the same time with a potential third one in three different regions of the world,” he said, referring to a potential Chinese invasion of Taiwan.
Within a day of Hamas’ initial attack on Israel, the Biden administration told lawmakers that Israel desperately needed more interceptors for its Iron Dome air defense system, along with artillery shells and precision-guided munitions.
While Ukraine is fighting a different type of war than Israel, there are weapons that both countries want from the U.S. Those include 155mm artillery shells, along with air-launched small diameter bombs, joint direct attack munitions and Hellfire missiles, demands that will only grow as the two wars grind on and the U.S. continues to ready itself for any potential clash with China.
Given these competing priorities, it is past time for Pentagon leadership to have a “first supper” with industry leaders to speak frankly about what can be done to increase production to restock U.S. military warehouses, said Josh Kirshner, managing director at Beacon Global Strategies, a national security consulting firm.
The idea is a reversal of the infamous “last supper” dinner meeting then-Defense Secretary Les Aspin held with defense contractors in 1993 warning them that big budget cuts were coming and urging them to consolidate.
“There’s frustration on both sides as DoD and industry seem to be talking past each other,” Kirshner said. “We need to figure out how to put the defense industry on a wartime footing even if U.S. troops aren’t at war. It’s not something the system is designed for but needs to change if we’re serious about supporting partners.”
While Defense Department officials, including Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, say the U.S. can handle Ukraine and Israel at the same time, there is increasing skepticism about the base’s ability to keep up, especially when the Ukraine demand was already straining the system.
Experts have warned that this problem is coming, if not already here. In January, Seth Jones, an analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, released a study saying the Pentagon would quickly face some major weapons shortages if it were to fight a major power such as China due to the current peacetime-levels of production of precision weapons.
Ramping up to wartime levels means opening new production lines, signing contracts quickly and hiring more workers — a tall order for a country not actually at war.
Just days into such a fight, “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.’”
The sheer volume of munitions being fired in Ukraine alone has been a wake-up call for America’s defense community, according to Patrick Mason, a deputy assistant secretary of the Army.
“The scale is phenomenal when you look at the consumption of 155 [millimeter artillery] rounds,” he told an Army conference last week. “We have not seen anything like that, and the scale is incredibly daunting, especially when you’re in those meetings and you talk about what we need to do to increase our artillery production.”
Meanwhile, the U.S. arsenal continues to churn out munitions for allies and partners, and has pumped more money into the defense industry to increase production of items such as artillery shells and Patriot missiles. But those investments take time to bear fruit.
The Pentagon is expected to announce another $150 million shipment of weapons to Kyiv this week that includes those 155mm shells, along with Patriot and other air defense missiles.
Army officials have committed to increasing the output of 155mm shells to 100,000 per month by 2025, up from about 14,000 per month at the start of this year.
The differences between Ukraine and Israel mean they will restock at different speeds, making it difficult to predict if or when ammunition production falls short. Unlike Ukraine, Israel has one of the most advanced and well-resourced militaries in the world, and shares deep ties with American companies who produce military hardware.
Ukraine, meanwhile, is in the early stages of trying to build ties with the U.S. defense industry.
A defense industry conference in Kyiv this month was meant to forge some of those connections that would allow Ukraine to begin producing more weapons at home.
American and Ukrainian officials are also working on another high-level meetup between the industry leaders in Washington in the coming weeks, according to two people with knowledge of the planning, who requested anonymity to acknowledge the ongoing work.
The Biden administration is also expected to send Congress a $100 billion supplemental request as early as Thursday, including Israel and Ukraine aid, that would span an entire year, along with beefed-up security along the southern U.S. border.
Members of Congress have made the point this week that even if the Pentagon doesn’t come through with the money to support Israel, they’ll make sure that the military is supplied.
Visiting Israel over the weekend with a group of U.S. lawmakers, Sen. Chuck Schumer pledged that the upper chamber “will not just talk, we will act.”
Sen. Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.), who joined Schumer’s Israel trip, said he relayed Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant’s aid request to the White House on Tuesday.
That list, with $10 billion or more in hardware, includes Iron Dome interceptors, joint direct attack munition conversion kits, which turn unguided bombs into precision munitions, and other weaponry Kelly didn’t name for Israel’s airstrikes on Gaza and forthcoming ground offensive.
“They’re going to need munitions,” Kelly told reporters at the Capitol Tuesday, adding that in two Hamas airstrikes during his visit, Israel launched dozens of Iron Dome interceptors. “They expended a lot of rounds, and they’re doing that every single day.”
Israel’s need for precision weapons will likely remain constant, as its military relies heavily on precision airstrikes, and will only increase in the event of a ground incursion by the Israel Defense Forces.
Despite assurances from U.S. leaders, the war in Israel has led to some nervousness in Europe over what it may mean for the American aid for Ukraine.
In an interview with POLITICO during a visit to Washington on Wednesday, British Secretary of State for Defense Grant Shapps warned that Kyiv is still critically important.
“Let’s not forget about Ukraine,” Shapps said. “It’s really important that we keep the world’s focus there as well. We can do this. We can focus on both Europe and the Middle East at the same time and I just wanted to be here to work on some of that coordination.”
The specter of a ground operation in Gaza, meanwhile, presents a whole new set of challenges and a need for certain types of weapons, not necessarily being sent by the U.S. now.
The fight will require more precision munitions fired by aircraft and helicopters, along with precision artillery and plenty of munitions fired by tanks and armored vehicles in the streets.
Fighting through dense urban streets still populated by civilians “is the hardest kind of combat there is on the planet,” Frank McKenzie, a retired Marine Corps general who served as the chief of U.S. Central Command until last year, said in an interview.
If Israel intends to follow through on its promises to destroy Hamas, the battle won’t soon be over, requiring consistent, long-term support from the U.S. and the defense industry to keep up with what is expected to be a slow, grinding fight.
“It’s an environment where all the advantages of a modern, highly capable, high tech force are muted” by the close quarters of the enemy and the preparations Hamas has undoubtedly made to Gaza in anticipation of an Israeli invasion, he said.
“It will be a combined arms battle. You’ll have tanks in the streets, you’ll have armored breaching vehicles in the streets, you’ll have artillery behind you that will hopefully be able to fire very accurate rounds. But it’s gonna be as tough a fight as you can imagine.”
Joe Gould contributed to this report.