Strengthening the U.S. Industrial Base with Hon. Dr. William A. LaPlante
Vice Admiral Peter H. Daly: Good afternoon. I’m Pete Daly, CEO and publisher at the U.S. Naval Institute, and on behalf of the Center for Strategic International Studies and the Naval Institute we welcome you to this continuation of our Maritime Security Dialogue Series. This series is made possible through the generous sponsorship of HII.
Our theme today is “Strengthening the U.S. Industrial Base” and our guest speaker is the Honorable William A. LaPlante. Confirmed in 2022, Dr. LaPlante is responsible to the secretary of defense for acquisition, contract administration, logistics and materiel requirements, operational energy, nuclear, biological, chemical defense, the acquisition workforce itself, and the Defense Industrial Base. He spent more than 36 years in technology and national security positions in government and outside of government. He served as the assistant secretary of the Air Force from 2014 to 2017 – the assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition. He was a member of the Defense Science Board and played a key role in the defense acquisition reform as part of the Section 809 panel that covered streamlining and codifying acquisition regulations. He holds a doctorate in mechanical engineering from the Catholic University of America, a master’s in applied physics from Johns Hopkins, and a bachelor’s from – in engineering and physics – engineering physics, excuse me – from the University of Illinois.
Dr. Seth Jones will engage Secretary LaPlante in a moderated discussion that will include Q&As, and you can see here we have these QR codes posted. We prefer to get them that way so that the moderator can integrate those questions into the conversation. So, please, when the question arises use your QR code, jump onto that link, and submit your question. Dr. Jones is the vice president and Harold Brown chair, director for international security programs, and director of the transnational threat projects here at CSIS.
So I turn it over to Dr. Jones and Dr. LaPlante. Thank you.
Seth G. Jones: Thank you, Admiral Daly.
I just wanted to reiterate Admiral Daly’s comment. Thanks to HII for sponsoring this, and also thanks to the U.S. Naval Institute for a partnership that goes back well before I was here that included Kath Hicks, now deputy secretary of defense, before she took on the current position.
Really appreciate you coming over. It is great to see you around town and then in a range of places. You, clearly, are at front and center of what is one of the most important issues facing the Department of Defense right now, which is acquisition sustainment in the broader industrial base.
I wanted to start off with a bit of a historical question, which is if you look at the state of the industrial base at least since the World War II period or even the kind of late ’30s, it’s hit some peaks and valleys, surged – including the defense budget as a percentage of GDP surged during World War II, surged at various points during the Korean War, Vietnam War, the Reagan defense buildup, and then has come down at various periods post-Vietnam cuts the “last supper” years.
Where do you see things based on the sort of current – sort of the last 90 – 90 years or so – 80, 90 years – where do we sit today? I mean, we’ve got the largest war in Europe since World War II. We’ve got tensions in the Taiwan Straits. Where do you see the industrial base today?
William A. LaPlante: Yeah, thanks for the question. Boy, how do you summarize that? Let’s see.
Dr. Jones: What would Jack Gansler say to –
Dr. LaPlante: One of the things I was mentioning backstage is that I have the transcript of a roundtable that was done from Paul Ignatius, Jack Gansler, and Paul Kaminski literally on 9/11/2001, and they’re halfway through it and then somebody says that a plane just hit this building in New York, and then they kept going.
What you’re struck by besides the fact that – how calm they were doing that event during 9/11 was how many things were not – are not new, going back to even World War II. The issues of buying and procuring things versus acquiring things, that there’s different skill sets, that the nonrecurring parts of things that are military use are different, that yes, there are some things you can buy as a commodity but you can’t buy everything as a commodity, and how important the human element is, is the – the actual people that are doing it, including experience with industry.
So to answer your question, I would just say right now we’re, hopefully, leaving an era where I think everything was really dialed down to the minimum amount. One way to think about it is, if you think about R&D, R&D is – yes, it’s S&T, which is 6-1 through 6-4, whatever, but that doesn’t mean you’re doing any development. There is a D. It’s big R, little D.
When you look at how many real development programs we’ve had over the last 20, 30 years, very few, and we still have very few development programs. And then you look at what happens on the right side of development, which is nominally, using nomenclature, Milestone C. Then you go into production. Very few development programs, minimal amount, and then very few production programs. So it’s been dialed down to the absolute minimum.
Yes, we’ve – you know, and you can look at the charts and see, you know, which – how many companies do we have that build fighters, how many build tankers, how many build mobility, how many build a vertical lift. You can see that it’s the limited number and I think that that was not by accident. As was said, if you read the accounts of the “last supper” it was designed that way for the reason that we were not going to go back, in my belief, to a percentage of GDP that we had even at the latter part of the Cold War.
1987 the defense budget was, roughly, 6 (percent) to 7 percent of GDP – 1987. So a lot of people that remember the good old days, if you remember back to 1987 that would be twice the defense budget we have today. We’d have to have, roughly, a $2 trillion defense budget today to have what we had in 1987.
We don’t have that after the Wall came down. Yes, we spent a lot on the wars but it was not on acquisition programs. It was a lot on operations sustainment, rapid fielding things, MRAPs, all the rest of it.
So it’s at the minimum that it needed – that it probably needs to be and what I’ve been emphasizing the last year, year and a half, is it really – what matters really, really is production because you can – if you don’t get these things into production you don’t field them at scale. You don’t have the supply chain.
So right now we’re at the minimum production that we – that we can do and maybe in some ways below it. Now, over the past year and a half we’ve addressed some of that through specific munitions applied to Ukraine. But we still have a lot more work to do.
Dr. Jones: Two questions that come from that. One is how are you thinking about tradeoffs between production and legacy programs right now? How do we think about building the next generation of – whether it’s aircraft or munitions and getting the lines right now for deterrence purposes up to where you think we need to be?
Dr. LaPlante: Well, a couple things. Number one is if it’s a legacy platform or munition, what matters is it still in production or not because if it’s still in production – take Stinger, Javelin, GMLRS for – I mean, you’d call GMLRS and HIMARS legacy – you can ramp those production lines up.
If it’s not in production anymore like the M777 then you have to go to the next generation, which is what the Army is doing for long-range fires. In all these cases there is a next generation of most of these things. There’s a next generation of air superiority or air dominance including CCA. There is a next generation bomber. There’s a next generation of lots of things.
But what I think we need to do is make sure that the next generation of items does production. I am the most interested in hypersonics. Even though I love thermal management and I love ablation and I love, you know, nonlinear flow, I can’t pretend that production isn’t more important than any of that stuff and if you ask yourself, which you should, are we doing production on hypersonics yet in this country the answer is no. Hope to within a year.
So think about that. Think about that. What matters in hypersonics is production and so it’s to get us to focus on that, not just focus on the hypersonics itself per se. And it’s a different mindset because the challenges when you’re in development are these hard challenges like thermal management, aerodynamic stability controls. But then you got to produce it at some point.
So I think that we have next generation of all these things but I would play out the scenario of how many we’re going to have. The most important thing I think in the CCA initiative that the Air Force talks about is 1(,000) to 2,000. That’s the key number, or the key number of what the deputy announced with this Replicator was – the numbers, I think, was 1(,000) to 2,000. That’s the key number, not that you have a Replicator or a CCA.
So I think – I really believe production is what matters and everything else follows from that.
Dr. Jones: So on Replicator, since you brought it up, there’s a Journal piece today that you may have seen. There are some concerns about shortage of skilled labor, of raw materials and parts such as advanced electronics and fasteners that may make it difficult to do cheap and quickly. Some people have raised that. How do you – that’s what the Journal piece raised – (inaudible) – today.
Dr. LaPlante: Yeah, I don’t think this is any different from any other item that we’re building – that you have to worry about all those supply chains and workforce. There’s nothing special about this that makes it any different.
It’s just that, you know, right now because of where the economy is, and this is – and it’s very geographic – the workforce in many ways is the most stressing element right now, both talented workforce in terms of writing software, engineering, but also the workforce that does the production and is conversant in advanced production, whether it’s additive or subtractive manufacturing.
That’s the key point and that’s going to happen for the Replicator but it also is the same thing true in the shipyards, to come back to Huntington Ingalls. The number-one issue in the shipyards is the workforce. So it’s no different between that and Replicator, in many ways.
Dr. Jones: So on the shipyards what is your sense with AUKUS and strain on the shipyards right now? How do we get to a position where we’re competitive or more competitive with the Chinese, who are producing ships at a pretty extraordinary rate?
Dr. LaPlante: Yeah, it’s – well, first of all, I was up at Quonset Point a couple weeks ago looking at what the – the modular systems being built not just for Columbia but for the Virginia payload module as well as the Virginia, and it’s remarkable what’s going on up there and its incredible workforce that’s going on. It’s great work.
But you have to remember where we’ve come from, to use your opening line. I’m old enough to remember going through all the submarine symposiums in the 1990s at Johns Hopkins APL, and then it was all about are we ever going to get to two – it was called NNSN before it was called Virginia-class – two per year, because we weren’t building submarines really. We built three Sea Wolfs and then we stopped, and then we were going to do what became the Virginia-class.
Well, you look at that and then you fast forward to where we are today and it’s, like, oh, my gosh, be careful. The puppy has caught the truck, or the submarine, depending how you want to say it. Because you have the Columbia-class. You have two – you’d like to be able to do two Virginia-class per year. Even though we’re doing about 1.2, we got to fix that.
I would add on top of that Virginia payload module because that’s actually a different – almost a different submarine – and then I haven’t even put my last finger up, which would be anything with AUKUS – all at the same time. And you compare that to, like, what we were in the 1990s. I mean, if someone would have announced that at a sub-tech symposium in 1995, people would have been partying. They would have been thrilled. And then they would say, oh, my God, how are we going to do it? So now we’re in that – we’re in that place.
I think we will. I think the fortunate news is that everybody’s got their sleeves rolled up. The Congress is supportive. The local community is supportive. But there’s a lot of work to be done and to do it with the Australians and with the Brits is going to be also a challenge.
But I think we’ll get there. It’s just going to take – it’s going to take years. It’s going to take years, and watch the – we have to watch the attrition rate. We have to make sure we understand what does it take to attract welders. Work-life balance is really, really important. You know, if you have to drive 50 miles, if you’re a single parent, you know, all those things matter. But we’ll get there.
Dr. Jones: And probably not just attract welders too but keep them.
Dr. LaPlante: Yeah. You can attract them but if they’re only attracted for a month and then they leave that doesn’t really help, and that actually is happening sometimes. I think people are making choices like that. So it’s not just to attract but it’s to keep them and keep them for a career. That’s what we all want to do.
Dr. Jones: On the AUKUS issue, which you just noted as well, there has been some discussions. I’ve talked to several members on the Hill about this. You, I’m sure, have a lot more than I have. Is the push for trying to take some steps on ITAR or broader foreign military sales including trying to get at least blanket waivers for Australia and the U.K.
You know, they have – they’ve had senior officials coming into D.C. on numerous occasions saying it still takes too long. We are Five Eyes countries. We share intimate intelligence with the U.S. But it’s very difficult. So, I mean, what is your sense on how to – if there are options for streamlining?
Dr. LaPlante: There is and it is happening, but we have more work to do. I would say at a macro level the risk equation has changed where the risk had been, largely, and the system is built around a risk of technology exploitation by an adversary. High risk of that. We want to make sure we mitigate against that.
Well, you have that risk but now we also have the operational imperative of what we’re facing in Indo-Pacific and we have to just get over it with close allies and partners like U.K. and Australia.
My view of nirvana is the Polaris Sales Agreement, which was signed back by President Kennedy and his counterpart, I think, in 1961 or 1962 where essentially the missile compartment – since then the missile compartments of the SSBNs in the U.K. and the U.S. are identical. They are identical. When you walk into one it’s – on a Vanguard-class submarine you’re walking into a Trident missile compartment. The data with one – with the exception of, perhaps, a very sensitive part of the physics package everything else is shared.
When I worked at Johns Hopkins APL we got all the patrol data from the U.K. It was just shared. That is a model of what we have to do, I believe, in AUKUS. We need the modern, and it’s got to be set up at that level. And I think that we have the political will to do it, but I think that risk equation has changed.
We’re providing things in Ukraine and we’re getting approvals much quicker than we would have even two years ago. But, again, it’s to move that risk equation to the risk of not – of not doing this – what’s the risk of not sharing that information, what’s the risk of not giving a deterrence of submarine production, say, in Australia as a deterrent to in Indo-Pacific. I think that’s where the equation is at.
Now, the bureaucracy – you still got a lot of the old stuff in it and that’s where we just have to kind of just prune it out.
Dr. Jones: And on the bureaucracy, I mean, you know, ITAR is – and foreign military sales are challenging because not only within the department do you deal with the office of the secretary of defense or the services but you’ve got State, you’ve got the Hill, and not just one committee but several committees.
So when you talk about the process and dealing with the bureaucracy what does that – what does that actually mean?
Dr. LaPlante: Yeah. So we just finished an FMS Tiger Team a few months ago, which has about 60 or 70 concrete actions that we’re taking to “streamline,” quote/unquote, FMS.
Here’s the way I would describe it, at least how I think about it in my head. FMS really starts with a letter of request – LOR. I mean, there’s a lot to the left of a letter of request but that’s the official start where it’s formally – the country asks for something and it has to be done well. The LOR has to be written well.
Then you go through this process – a lot of it is interagency, as you describe – to get to a letter of approval – LOA. That part right there can be very fast for routine things but for more nonroutine things could be – it could be tough.
That’s what a lot of people – number one, they associate that with FMS, those processes. But there’s a – but then the second part of it, which also gets wrapped in, is after you have an LOA is when you probably get the contract and you set up the program office and you start to acquire the system and if – I’ll use the F-16s as a simple example. There’s about 18 (billion dollars) to 19 billion (dollars) backlogged for Taiwan on FMS, and it’s not the LOR to LOA part. They’ve been through that. It’s the production of the F-16s and Harpoons, and there’s nonrecurring that’s being done on the F-16s – software updates and mods.
And so it’s that whole process and LOR, LOA, contract, nonrecurring if you have to do it, and then production. If you put them all together it can be very, very laborious. Now, what we’re trying to do is, of course, accelerate the LOR to LOA, compress that as much as possible, and this is the part we’re still trying to work with the Hill on is if we could get some means of advanced procurement, if you will, to keep production lines higher, that we know the LOA is going to be signed so we could just go and grab something off the line, then that whole thing can be collapsed.
But the way the process is now that it’s very much in – you know, it’s one thing after another. It’s not concurrent at all, and that’s what we’re trying to fix.
Dr. Jones: Well, I think we’re seeing that, you know, certainly, in a couple of examples in Ukraine, for example, where we’ve talked to State and the numbers look like they’re moving on some issues.
But I did want to turn briefly to munitions stockpiles because, you know, we’ve heard it from some within the services – we’ve heard it from industry as well – some still concerns in the Indo-Pacific about stockpiles of munitions for a protracted war.
What is your sense about where we are? And, you know, you can talk about LRASMs or JASSMs, particularly the extended range. Where are we with stockpiles right now? Do we have enough? If not, how do we – how do we get there?
Dr. LaPlante: Yeah. So let me talk a bit about this because there’s been a lot of work done over the last year and a half on Ukraine and we’re always – and I’m going to pivot from Ukraine to the Indo-Pacific, if you’d just bear with me.
We’ve had a lot of work to do to get the production lines up and faster for the items for Ukraine and replenishment, whether it’s 155, Stinger, Javelin, et cetera, even PAC-3 to some extent, and by and large, those – it’s happening. I mean, it’s happening. As you’ve seen the numbers from 155 we’ve doubled the production just in the last six months and we’ll be up to a hundred thousand a month within about a year and a half, and then Stingers and Javelins are in pretty good shape and the rest of it.
So we’re doing that and we’re doing – and we want to get to multiyears and all that. There’s really not that much overlap with Indo-Pacific. There’s some like the PAC-3, which is, you know, the Lockheed Martin version of Patriot, the most modern one. It’s a really effective system. That’s the one that’s shooting down the hypersonics in Kyiv.
Well, that’s going to be in demand around the world.
Dr. Jones: Or maybe GMLRS or something like that.
Dr. LaPlante: GMLRS are not really – I mean GMLRS – we’re OK for GMLRS actually including for the Pacific. Somebody said one time that the 155s was really putting us in danger for the Pacific and I just don’t know what you’d fire a 155 round at in the Pacific other than the water. (Laughter.)
But so there’s really not that much overlap. There’s overlap below it – in a lot of the supplies, whether it’s rocket motors or ball bearings or microelectronics or Seekers or whatever.
That’s separate from saying what’s the situation in the Indo-Pacific, to your question –
Dr. Jones: Yes.
Dr. LaPlante: – for an extended conflict.
Dr. Jones: Yes.
Dr. LaPlante: And without giving – without saying any specific numbers I would say we’ve got work to do there. This is behind why – if you look at the push that we’ve been doing to get to multiyears a lot of those were for Indo-Pacific munitions, whether it’s LRASM, whether it’s PAC-3, whether it’s SM-6, whether – all of those, even – we didn’t ask for a multiyear but even MK 48 heavyweight torpedo. Tomahawk.
We need – we need AMRAAM. AMRAAM is one where there’s some overlap because AMRAAM in Ukraine the 120-Bs and Cs are being used in the NASAMS, which is that ground interceptor. But AMRAAM is really an air-to-air weapon.
Dr. Jones: Maybe like Naval Strike Missile?
Dr. LaPlante: Or like Naval Strike Missile would obviously be one for the Pacific. There I think we do need to – I know that CSIS has done some of these extended war games. I’ve read your report about the ’24-’25 table – scenario tabletops you’ve done. We need more attention on that and then we need to budget to it.
So it’s just – and I said this before. I think that, you know, I get it. Maybe this is simple minded. But if you look at it of the real challenge is matching a consumption rate that you’re trying to predict. War breaks out and the consumption rate of X goes up from here this quickly. So how do you in a perfect world with a buffer do you match consumption rate with production rate?
That’s nirvana as close as possible. And can you build that up? And then what is the scenario – how likely is the scenario that says we have a months-long conventional fight in the Indo-Pacific at consumption rates of boom, boom, boom, boom, and play that out and say what’s – even though maybe that’s not a high likelihood – let’s say it’s a possibility – have we budgeted to that and if we budgeted to that where the percentage of GDP of our defense budget is 3.6 percent, not 7 percent.
So that’s the other thing to think about, at least that I think about, is, you know, it is a lot of money. It’s the biggest defense budget in history and all the stuff that you read, and – true. However, as a percentage of GDP it’s not at all. And so we have – and you know the situation today – we have a pretty confined defense budget and so where’s the money going to come from to do all of those things.
So it’s a risk equation. It’s a risk equation of is it the likeliest of the unlikely scenarios? I don’t know. I don’t think so. But do we need to do more work there? I believe absolutely, and that doesn’t really have much to do with Ukraine.
Dr. Jones: So how likely, from your standpoint, are we to see in the final NDAA in ’24, or would you hope to see, the progress on the multiyear contracts for a range of these munitions?
Dr. LaPlante: Yeah. I don’t know. I mean, I think that we’re working really hard and everybody’s working this on both sides of the issue, not just politically, but whether you agree or not has the right thing in mind. I just think that the – I think we have to play out with our – and doing the budgets and doing multiyears play out the people and make them really think through what happens if it’s an extended conflict.
We’re doing the multi or we want to do the multiyears because it’s not a panacea. It will get savings, but that’s not the reason we’re pushing it. It’s because it takes one more reason away from industry to say, I’m not putting my CAPEX against it, because you all – I don’t believe you guys.
I was talking to another country today, a close ally. I won’t say who they are. And they said to me, our industry doesn’t believe it. They’re not putting their capital up against munitions and building things. They simply don’t believe us.
Now, that’s in their country. I’d like to think a multiyear would help. Once we put EOQ, which is a bunch of the money, up front so they bought by the long lead items, we generally don’t break multiyear contracts in the DOD. We honor them. That’s what – that’s the reason why we want to get to them.
I think – I talked about a chart that our JPAC has produced that goes back to the first Gulf War that shows a historical pattern of about – you have the crisis, which is Saddam invaded Kuwait, and then you have the buildup of the industrial base over the next year or two, some munitions, and then about two years after the crisis it drops again.
And the next thing is you had 9/11. You had 9/11 happen and then – I remember that. After 9/11, we almost ran out of munitions in Afghanistan, like, around December of 2001. And then you get to about 2003 it’s at peak and then 2004 or ’05 it drops again and the industry lays people off. And then it happens again. It happened again with Inherent Resolve and, of course – so there’s a reason that that happens is because we buy munitions one year at a time and we assume that we can surge when the crisis happens and then when the crisis is over we just lay the people off, turn the production lines off, and go back to where we are. And I’m trying and others are trying to change that behavior.
Dr. Jones: Well, it’s probably important for at least two reasons. One is probably hard to deter or at least has an impact on deterrence if other states can see that you don’t have stockpiles, in some cases.
The second issue, which is – which is a question, in a sense, which is what is your sense when it comes to with some of these munitions our ability to – you know, to move quickly through the Hill? I mean, what is your sense that the Hill is likely to approve this because –
Dr. LaPlante: Well, the Hill has been great. They’ve been great on the Ukraine supplementals. They’ve been outstanding. I think on the Hill on multiyears there’s a general reluctance among the appropriators. Just generally they are very – they look skeptically at multiyears because they – because it does tie up – it commits the government to money. You lose liquidity and being able to move money around. So anybody who builds budgets makes their job harder, and rightfully so they want to make sure there’s savings.
So I think there’s – I think there’s some – you know, we have some work to do. I think we’re going to get some. I just don’t know we’re going to get all of them.
Let me just mention one other thing about deterrence and production. The proliferated LEO for space, one of the ideas behind it – the benefits of it is not just that you have a proliferated constellation, which makes attacking it very difficult – it turns the asymmetry – is also to have that. Particularly with short-lived satellites you have to keep production lines hot.
Well, if I see production lines are hot and I’m the adversary and I see you – you can just produce these LEO satellites every two weeks and you have a hot production line, and I can try shooting them down but you’re just going to keep pushing them up and that’s the deterrent, too, is the proliferated LEO. It’s about the production line. So think about that with other capabilities and that’s where – that’s why I say production is deterrence.
Dr. Jones: So on production did it give you a sense as you looked at the Ukraine war that, you know – I mean, I was involved directly in the CT wars in Afghanistan and a range of other places. One thing that’s interesting with a conventional war is – and you can see it now in Ukraine – it’s an industrial style war and we’re heading now towards year two where the Russians have assistance from the Chinese, from the North Koreans, from the Iranians, and the Ukrainians have it from the U.S. and other European states and even some outside of Europe.
But the amount of munitions that are being used, the equipment that’s being destroyed or wearing down is significant, the need for spare parts. Does that impact your view on what kinds of stockpiles you might need? I mean, I’m not asking you to comment on OPLANs but, you know, the – how long you think a conflict might –
Dr. LaPlante: Well, it gets back to this consumption rate I mentioned earlier. I think you have to – we have to game out the length of the conflict and the consumption rate and what will be consumed.
In the case of Ukraine it’s this hybrid. I don’t know how to describe it. I’m sure maybe you’ll write a book about it or somebody will. It’s this hybrid of – it is industrial, if you want to call it that, hybrid but it’s also making use of rapidly available technology whether it’s writing software or very, very cheap drones.
I mean, they’re very cheap these drones. That’s the whole point. They’re not high tech. They’re low tech. They’re low tech and cheap, and there is – there is commercial stuff going on but it’s not maybe what you’d think. For example, an app that everybody can have on their phone or iPad or equivalent in Ukraine sort of like Waze, that when you see – you’re driving or your spouse is sitting there and you see an accident and you type it in and it goes into the Waze, everybody else can see it, they sort of got – the Ukrainians have an app like that that everybody has if you see UASes flying over.
So they’re using modern tech but it’s not – it’s more everyday modern tech. And then they’re 3D printing everything. And so it’s this hybrid situation. But you don’t make tanks with software.
Now, maybe tank – you know, you don’t make tanks with software. You might have a lot of software on the tank. And then parts, you have to sustain these things. Just like your car at home or just like anything you have in your house it has to be sustained if it breaks every two days. So there’s none of the laws of physics or engineering that have changed with conflict.
And the other piece that I would say to people is that the con ops matters. Unfortunately, the adversary that the Ukrainians are fighting – Russia – is not trying to minimize collateral damage with highly precise weapons. They’re not building weapons that are a one-pound warhead that will go through a window. They’re just knocking down the building. So you all –
Dr. Jones: Or a school, in some cases.
Dr. LaPlante: Right. So you have to also say, you know, when you go to some countries and they show you their exquisite technology, including ours, a lot of it is to go through the window and hit the – you know, do this but don’t do that. When you don’t care and you just – you can just destroy the building and that’s your military objective the technology you need to do it is maybe different.
So it’s this hybrid situation and it’s certainly not necessarily how we would fight. That’s the other piece to remind people about. There’s not an OPLAN for Ukraine. (Laughter.) We didn’t sit there and have an OPLAN for Ukraine sitting on the shelf, you know, because we have OPLANs for how we fight and we fight with our partners and allies.
So that’s why the 155 situation is so interesting, is we wouldn’t use 155s in the volume they’re being used in this conflict. We would fight differently. And this is not a criticism, in no way a criticism. It’s just the way it is.
Dr. Jones: So we’ve got a whole range of questions from the audience but I’ve got one or two last ones before moving to – there are a number of good ones, too.
Dr. LaPlante: I’ve got questions. I even got some good ones. (Laughter.)
Dr. Jones: Well –
Dr. LaPlante: Kidding. I’m kidding. I’ve got answers, even some good ones.
Dr. Jones: That’s good. The first is what is your sense – this is kind of an Andrew Marshall question, which is if you look at the – our Defense Industrial Base through the lens of kind of net assessment what is your sense of the Chinese defense industrial base right now?
How much does it matter where they are and what they’re producing? But what is your sense about where they’re at right now and how we should be thinking about our own in response?
Dr. LaPlante: Yeah. Again, I go back to what I said earlier about – when you asked about the state of our industrial base going back to World War II. Remember I said that we’ve minimized development – real development, not prototyping and S&T. We’ve always had DARPA. We’ve always had – we’ve had DIU for many years doing prototypes.
But we minimized actual hardcore development and what I mean by that is, like, B-21 is in development right now. It’s not – it’s not doing S&T. It’s developing the design of the airplane that’s going to go into production very soon.
Well, China seems to have – again, from the outside looking in, not anything that – just what you see in the news and everything, but what a lot of us have been really interested in is what we call cycle times with the Chinese – how long it takes for them to go from saying – from deciding they want to develop something to when it’s fielded and fielded in numbers.
So it’s to go how long does it take for them to develop something, how many things simultaneously are they developing, and then how many of those are going into production with numbers and how long is that timeline.
And there’s different debates. My view on it is it’s – with the caveat we don’t know how well they organize, train, and equip and .MIL PF is – I just don’t know. Is it’s really impressive. They’re developed – they’ve developed in numbers really good high-end capability in numbers. So they’ve done the development and the development has been pretty continuous and not just one thing. They place multiple bets.
We don’t do that. We will – we very rarely will place multiple bets and having – in other words, having three different development activities going on. We used to do that. We don’t do that –
Dr. Jones: Where you expect one or more may fail, too?
Dr. LaPlante: Yes, but you know – you might – you hope that two or three of them will survive. But we – again, because our budgets of where we are we just don’t have the luxury of doing that anymore.
The Chinese seem to be doing that. And then when they get the development done the winner or the winners go into production and they field at numbers – high degree of numbers. That’s what it – that’s sort of what it appears like from the outside. Again, you have to say, well, let’s not make them 10 foot tall. Let’s not project our ways of doing on them and all the caveats.
But it does seem that way that they – now, part of that may be because they were starting with more of a blank sheet. If you have a large number of legacy platforms you can’t do everything at once, you know, and so but it’s – you have to – you know, you have to notice that they are developing and they’re fielding.
Dr. Jones: Yeah. Plus, I think there’s at least another additional step, which is it’s one thing to field. It’s another to do, say, anti-submarine warfare, which is – which can be complicated and it’s –
Dr. LaPlante: Well, that gets to the .MIL PF piece, the doctrine and all the rest of it. Can you do combined arms or anti-submarine warfare or whatever. You know, that’s – or maneuver.
Dr. Jones: OK. So a number of questions. Kym Bergmann from the Asia Pacific Defense Reporter – regarding the sale of nuclear-powered submarines to Australia with an initial contribution of 3 billion (dollars) to the U.S. industrial base would a viable alternative be to spend that money on components built in Australia for U.S. submarines?
Dr. LaPlante: I suppose it could be a viable component but I believe – and it may be a hybrid of the two but I believe a fundamental part, at least from when I visit submarine shipyards, is not just the individual components but it’s the assembly and the integration of them. That’s the magic, and keeping it sub safe.
You know, if you look at the modular systems being put together at Quonset Point, yes, there’s components that are built in other places like the turbine generators are built in California by Northrop Grumman, provided GFE by the government. But the real magic is not just building those there but it’s actually assembling them into the modules and then assembling the modules and putting it all together.
So I would say there’s probably no replacement from – to putting it together and actually doing the integration. I mean, you could but you could always pick some components and outsource it or say that’s done in Australia.
Dr. Jones: OK. Dylan Harris, NHK Japan Broadcasting – what are the potential implications of the government shutdown on the wider Defense Industrial Base as well as the upcoming security assistance package to Ukraine?
Dr. LaPlante: Well, let’s – there’s two different things, right. One, they’re both bad. One is real bad. One’s just so bad. One is a CR and the other is a shutdown. Just at a CR – Continuing Resolution – unless you get a waiver for it any increases in production is not going to happen till the CR is over.
So in the past this affected GMLR lines. It actually affected Patriot in the past CRs. And so that’s a CR. If the government shuts down it’s worse. Testing will stop. Acceptance by the government of equipment when it is finished and ready to be accepted can stop. In 2013 during the government shutdown I was AQ for the Air Force. We sent the DCMA – Defense Contracting Management Agency – who are embedded in a lot of the factories around the country. They were home. They were not considered essential. And therefore, the government could not DD-250 items, meaning accept them.
So production lines stopped. F-35s stopped. Munitions stopped. And so that the – I have some testing we want to do next week on an item for Ukraine and unless we can get some type of a waiver, which we’re going to get, it’s not going to happen.
So it’s – and people are not going to be able to travel. So it’s just – it’s extremely disruptive and, of course, the message it sends to the government workforce, you know, we’re sending people home who are our engineers, our acquisition professionals, our sustainers, our contracting officers. We’re just sending them home and saying, you’re not essential. It’s just – it’s just horrible, you know, because there’s really no – nothing good you can say about it.
And the other thing I’d just say is can you imagine if the Chinese had something like this where their government would shut down every few years and they would freeze their budget and not start up things for six months? That would probably – we would not view that badly. You know, if we could teach them how to do that that would be helpful. (Laughter.) Export – that’s an export thing.
Dr. Jones: I’m sure we’d be happy –
Dr. LaPlante: There’s probably an ITAR issue there, though. (Laughter.)
Dr. Jones: Joshua Carey, Australian embassy – how do you see international partners supporting the U.S. military industrial base and is there room for collaboration, interchangeability, and wider support. And I’m going to add on to that co-production and co-development.
Dr. LaPlante: Yeah. We’re going to do co-production. Co-development – we’re going to try to do three – all three. We’re going to try to do co-development, co-production, and actually co-sustainment. There are already – the Australians have already announced to this question that the GMLRS are going to be produced in Australia and the follow-on, which is called PrSM, and we’re going to set up – Heidi Shyu and I were over there a few months back and others have been over there. We’re going to set up some other co-productions with the Australians. Same in Europe, and we’re going to – we’re going to set up even co-productions with the Ukrainians so in their country.
So I see co-production coming. I think that this is going to be a big emphasis of NATO. The Vilnius Summit this summer made a commitment to multinational and multiyear procurement including co-production. So this is where we’re headed, and it’s not just to help the U.S. industrial base. It’s to help everybody’s industrial base.
And we have other countries’ companies coming to the United States and opening production lines including, for example, down in South Carolina Elbit is a U.S. subsidiary of an Israeli company. They announced a factory they’re going to open – they have opened in north Charleston to do munitions, among other things. There’s a lot of that going on. I think there’s going to be more of that.
Dr. Jones: Some would call this ally shoring or friend shoring?
Dr. LaPlante: Or production diplomacy is what I call it.
Dr. Jones: Oh, production diplomacy.
Dr. LaPlante: Because, you know, you can talk all you want about how your countries are bonded and have all these theoretical discussions. But when you get the national armaments directors and our people together with each other you get right to work. Oh, you have this – you have this propellant? We have this. Oh, can you do this? Can we do that?
I mean, we had these conversations last week. I mean, I was at the ministerial meeting with – at Ramstein with the secretary. The next day I chaired this equivalent meeting of all my equivalents and all we’re doing is talking about the details of what can you do on 155, what can we do, where are you at on this type of energetics or precursor. This is what we have.
We have these things called the FrankenSAMs, which are anti-air, anti-missile, anti-UAS systems. We call them FrankenSAM, where SAM is surface-to-air missile, because it takes sensors from some countries, command and control from somewhere else, and then an effector – an interceptor from somewhere else – and it’s all – and make it all work together.
So there’s a lot of real interest in doing that. We’re going to do it. We’re already setting it up.
Dr. Jones: That’s good.
Dr. LaPlante: Yeah.
Dr. Jones: OK. Colby Badhwar from Tochni, which is – this is a continuation of the precision strike missile question – precision strike missile deliveries were scheduled to begin this month. Is the program on schedule? And given robust, ongoing FMS demands for ATACMS will this impact the ability to increase production from the minimum sustaining rate to the max or to the –
Dr. LaPlante: And you have to say which missile is this. Is this PrSM?
Dr. Jones: PrSM. Yes, PrSM.
Dr. LaPlante: Yeah. So by memory, and I could be wrong, my memory is that first deliveries of them were – in the U.S. were, I think, in August and so they’re already – they’re delivering already. And then what was the other part of the question?
Dr. Jones: Given robust ongoing FMS demand for ATACMS will this impact the ability to increase production from the minimum sustaining rate to the max for 2024?
Dr. LaPlante: Well, let’s just say this. Without knowing what the budget’s going to end up being is that we want to get the PrSM line up as fast as possible past an MSR as soon as we can. But that means we got to get the money to do it.
So there’s – remember there’s two things here. There’s increasing the capacity of the production line but then there’s actually funding the production line. (Laughs.) And so we – you have to do both and that’s why the things like the multiyears and the budget is really important; otherwise, we won’t have the money to do that.
So but PrSM – I think we have a lot of hope that PrSM is going to be one of the go-to weapons over the next three, four years including, as I mentioned with Australia, FMS.
Dr. Jones: Yeah. This question is from USNI News – I’m looking at Pete here – Mallory Shelbourne – what is the status of DOD LPD-17 amphib study and the total number of amphibious ships required?
Dr. LaPlante: I have no update on that so I don’t know. If they’re asking the question of what’s the status I guess it’s not complete yet. I honestly don’t know. I don’t know. I’m sorry.
Dr. Jones: OK.
Dr. LaPlante: It’s not public is, I guess, what it is.
Dr. Jones: Not public?
Dr. LaPlante: It’s certainly not public. Yeah. I have no idea if it’s complete or not – not complete.
Dr. Jones: A question from a graduate student at George Washington University, Christian Williams. What do you believe will be our greatest challenge in the coming years with rising tensions with China and what are the solutions to resolving those challenges?
Dr. LaPlante: Well, the challenge is going to be not – avoiding the conflict. We don’t want a conflict.
So the challenge is it’s this – threading this needle whereas we know deterrence works and deterrence meaning that – or some type of integrated deterrence, what the National Defense Strategy has, which means that a country, for example, doesn’t believe – it believes it would cause them more negative consequences than positives to do an offensive war action.
And so the – so the challenge is to make sure that that works, that there is believed to be consequences so that the conflict doesn’t happen, at the same time making sure the conflict doesn’t happen. So an example right now that you could argue deterrence is working is, you know, NATO. NATO officially is not involved in this conflict. It’s not as an entity – in the Ukraine conflict.
You know, NATO has Article Five so you could argue that to date Russia has been deterred from attacking outside of Ukraine. So that’s what – you want to make that hold. But I think the other piece that we really have to watch in the next few years is we have to open up lines of communication between our countries mil-to-mil, policy-to-policy, diplomatic more, and all of that.
It’s only safer when we’re talking to each other and I think that that’s something that it’s in the interest of both countries to make sure that those lines of communication stay open so there’s – we understand each other.
Dr. Jones: People, I think, probably forget that even during the heat of the Cold War during the 1980s where the competition was intense we had an open line of communication with the Communist Party in the Soviet Union.
Dr. LaPlante: When I served as AQ, which was 2013 to 2016, I just remember the chief of staff of the Air Force General Welsh would go to China and visit his equivalent. It was very routine. We had our chiefs visiting each other. We had the COCOMs visiting. We had our policy people visiting and vice versa just even six, seven years ago and now it’s a different situation. We got to – I think we just have to turn that –
Dr. Jones: The challenge it looks like and it’s from the outside – the challenge does not look like it is a lack of desire among the U.S. Department of Defense to have those – that relationship. It does not appear to be reciprocated.
Dr. LaPlante: Yeah, I can’t – I mean, I’m the acquisition guy. But all I can say is what I see and hear, which is absolutely, you know, from a professionalism perspective of just operating safely together whether it’s air to air, I think our – I know our military wants to have those conversations just for no other reason than safety and just to add professionalism to the interactions that are happening.
Unfortunately, if you just look in the news they’re happening way too often, and you know, it’s just a matter – the concern is it’s a matter of time before something happens and that we just aren’t going to be able to control. So the conversations are a good thing.
Dr. Jones: A question from Don Gillikin. How can we speed up the RFP development process while reducing changes to ship specifications during a program?
Dr. LaPlante: Yeah. Speeding up RFPs – interesting. Let’s see, a couple things. Number one is we should get draft RFPs on the government side out as quickly as possible and so that industry can comment on them and turn around the draft. And the reason to send a draft RFP out is to get responses where people will say: Look, do you notice in Sections L and M if you did this, we can’t bid? So that’s number one.
Number two is – and this gets to the second part of the question – sometimes the delay in the RFP is that decisions have not been finalized on the requirements or the design itself. The RFP is just a manifestation of it. You know, that’s just the white smoke coming up.
But the actual delay is because the requirement has not been finalized or the design that the government wants to use was – the ship design has still got work to do.
So I would say it’s the things behind the RFP that have to be – that have to be done quicker and then, of course, putting a draft out.
Dr. Jones: A question from Robert Allen Baker. Many defense manufacturing communities are finding that we simply don’t have talent pools large enough to meet industrial base workforce needs for surge capability, and automation is a daunting challenge. What’s your stance on automation – on industrial base automation?
Dr. LaPlante: Well, you need to – I think what you do is you put the – this is true in warfighting as well as in production – you put people where we need the people. So you can’t have it both ways. You can’t say, we don’t have enough workforce; oh, by the way, automation’s turning off the workforce.
No. No. You need the workforce and you need automation and, in fact, I think some of the most exciting things in modern production is the automation and people what they – what 25-year-olds can do just sitting in a – with modern and advanced manufacturing is really cool.
But the workforce is a real challenge and there it’s all of the above. It’s wages. I mean, when – the marketplace for just working, for example, at fast food and the services some of the hourly rates there compared to what we pay in shipyards are getting pretty close to being the same.
I was just talking to a Canadian deputy minister this morning and they’ve had some – they’re like us with their shipyards where they’ve had – very regional. One shipyard in one part of the country is doing really well, another one not so much – with workforce – and it’s hard to figure out what it is.
The one that they have in their eastern part of Canada is actually doing really well and people are staying. Whereas we – it’s up in Halifax – we in Bath as we know we’ve had challenges there in Bath.
Now, what they said was part of it was a really tough union negotiation where they got a good wage. We had to renegotiate or GD had to renegotiate with the 155 up in Scranton and Wilkes-Barre. So part of it is just out pay – you know, just pay.
The other piece of it is that work-life balance and – you know, and some of the best welders might be a single mom – might be a really good welder. Well, daycare may really be the difference, and is she going to take the job in the shipyard versus taking it somewhere else where the daycare is better. Or it could be a he with day care.
But those are the things that we’re finding, and I think the companies that are being pretty forward leaning – for example, there’s one of the – one of the mid-tier companies is now accepting as professional, if you will, engineers people that don’t have college degrees because people without college degrees can do really good software coding and you don’t have to have college degrees to do some of these things.
And that old barrier that we used to have – you need to have a bachelor’s of science – you know, the places I worked we were required to be a bachelor of science at least to work. I think that’s got to go away, too. I think it’s just a different model.
Dr. Jones: So how much of that, though, in your view is – and you can see this including with some of the shipyards where they have tried very hard to develop programs with some of the vocational schools in and around their shipyards.
Dr. LaPlante: Yeah. They’ve done a really good job and at the same time they’re still really challenged, and that was done – I think it’s a whole of government thing. I think it’s a local government thing. It’s the state in the – and they need to do it together and, like, what’s gone – that happened in Virginia with – I think it’s down in – I forget where it was in Virginia where they had that welding school.
I think it’s a whole of government. But you got to still keep the people after they start working and this gets to the wages and the work-life balance. And, again, the anecdotes you’re getting or I’m getting from some of the shipyards, for example, is even after they hired the individual once they maybe commuted – maybe they’re a single parent. We don’t know. They commuted 40 miles to get there and they do it for about three weeks and they realize, you know what, that – you know, working at Home Depot’s not so bad in my neighborhood. They only – they pay a little less but not that much less.
So I think that that’s the part of it we’re going to have to get real about is making sure that we’re providing a good option for people to have a career and their work-life balance, and I believe what is – what people are looking for today in a work-life balance is different than it was 10, 15 years ago. It just is.
Dr. Jones: We’re almost at the end of our time. Probably one last question from the audience, which is the Defense Industrial Base exists within a larger economy but with a specialized workforce and a specialized supply chain. Economic disruptions such as high levels of inflation, volatility in prices, has significantly impacted the Defense Industrial Base. This is especially challenging for fixed price programs that put together plans before the pandemic. They are now trying to execute in a new economic reality.
Should DOD do more to help companies stuck in what some argue are outdated arrangements?
Dr. LaPlante: Yes. Yes, and we – but here’s the thing. There’s something called an EPA clause, which is economically priced adjustment, which needs to be in many more contracts than it currently is in, particularly including fixed price to deal with exactly that.
Now, with the shipyards or ships I think they’re put in. The EPA clauses are put in. But we got away from it in other contracts fixed price. We need to do that so that you can price in inflation.
Here’s the key part, though. Even if you do it with the prime – if the government does it with the prime, if they don’t flow that down to their suppliers then it doesn’t really help. So we – it’s going to take a team effort. We can’t just do it with the prime and then the prime – remember, the primes have lots of fixed-price contracts with their suppliers. They have to be willing to flow it down as well.
So I think that’s part of it. What I – what we’ve been asking industry for is give us data because I think on the Hill, at least in the past, they’ve been very receptive. But we need data. We need to show data of this is – this is how much pre-COVID it cost to do this same job now, and look at the delta. It’s this percentage. And then we can – we can help with the money. And so but, again, it’s going to take a team effort.
Dr. Jones: Great. Well, I did not ask you any questions on the University of Illinois football team or how the season is going this year. We just stuck to the Defense Industrial Base and acquisitions.
But I do want to thank you for spending a few minutes with us today. If everybody here could join me in person thanking Dr. LaPlante. (Applause.)
Dr. LaPlante: Thank you.
Dr. Jones: I have to say that, you know, we have a range of officials that come over here from the Department and other U.S. government agencies. But you are at the top of the list in your willingness to come out and speak publicly and your willingness to just be frank and honest about what you’re doing, where you need to go.
Dr. LaPlante: Thank you.
Dr. Jones: So thank you very much for your willingness to engage. It’s –
Dr. LaPlante: And thanks for CSIS and the Navy Institute. Thank you for what you’re doing. And CSIS is really important because it’s our farm team for where we get our people for in the Pentagon. (Laughter.)
But it’s all – I’m teasing. But it – no, it’s important and I’m a great admirer of John Hamre, and it’s important for the role it plays of – almost its convening function between the government, between academia, industry, the Hill, and so that’s why it’s always important to do these. So thank you very much.
Dr. Jones: Thank you. (Applause.)