Arsenal of Democracy

  • by Pete O'Brien
  • 07-24-2022

The war in Ukraine, the Russian invasion of Ukraine, grinds on. Tragic scenes keep repeating themselves. Even as they have, apparently, solved the immediate problem of getting Ukraine's grain out of Odessa.

Meanwhile, the US keeps sending weapons to Ukraine, which, all things being equal, is, I suppose, okay. 

But, all things aren’t equal. How many weapons of each type do we have left in our inventory? 

Yes, there is an argument that this is just the same as what we did in World War II. In the summer of 1940, for example, the US Army was stripped of several hundred thousand rifles and they were sent to the UK (plus ammo and machine guns and some howitzers, etc.) so they UK could arm its populace (or a small slice of it) as an element of the plan to defeat a possible German invasion.

I read an article recently in a prominent US newspaper in which the US is again identified as the “arsenal of democracy,” this in reference to the US supplying weapons to Ukraine. Before we get nostalgic and perhaps put on some Benny Goodman, let’s take a look at what that might cost.

Begin with some grand numbers so that you can put things in context. In 1940, as we were still struggling to find a way out of the depression, the US Gross Domestic Product (GDP) stood at $103 billion. In 1941, as a result of a great deal of government spending, that jumped to 129, 1942 - 166, 1943 - 203, 1944 - 224, 1945 - 228

Meanwhile, total defense spending rose accordingly: 1940 - 1.8 billion, 1941 - 6.4, 1942 - 25.6, 1943 - 66.7, 1944 - 79.1, 1945 - 82.9.

It is important to remember that the US was under a regime of fairly strict wage and price controls; this was a command economy, not a free market. So, the real size of the economy can be said to have remained essentially the same - $103 billion. To soften the numbers, I’ll use the figure for 1941 - 129 billion, after that the war was what the nation was doing. So, here are the real percentages of GDP committed to defense, the spending that turned the US into the arsenal of democracy:
1941 - 4.9%.  1942 - 19.8%.   1943 - 51.7%.    1944 - 61.3%.    1945 - 64.3%. 

Even using the completely fabricated numbers of the command driven GDP of 1945, the US still spent 36.3% of GDP on defense in 1945.

To put these numbers in perspective, this would require the following plus-up in defense for the next five years for the US given our current GDP of $25 trillion:
2023 - 1.225 trillion, 2024 - 4.95 trillion, 2025 - 12.9 trillion, 2026 - 19.8 trillion, and 2027 - 20.7 trillion.

As to the assertion that Russia’s economy is smaller than ours, it’s worth remembering that Germany’s economy in 1940 was about $40 billion; Japan’s was estimated to have been roughly $11 billion.

A couple of other thoughts as well, as we dust off Glen Miller: 
More capable weapons are more expensive weapons.
HIMARS is a very capable weapon. Each round (per the public report issued in April 2022 by the DOD Comptroller) costs a bit more than $150,000. Javelin? A tad more than a quarter of a million each.

As of the end of May (two months ago), the US had given the following to Ukraine (below is not the complete list). ( Since then more has been delivered. Congress has already set aside money to replace these weapons, but many will take time to replace, it is costing a good deal of money, and most importantly, as we watch weapon expenditures in this war, the Pentagon is finally waking up to the idea that perhaps we need larger stockpiles of weapons than we’ve maintained in the past.

To just give one example, replacing the Stinger stockpile (for which Congress has now set aside more than $600 million) will take more than two years.

- 1,400 Stinger anti-aircraft systems
- 5,500 Javelin anti-armor systems
- 14,000 other anti-armor systems
- 700 Switchblade Tactical Unmanned Aerial Systems
- 108 M-177 155mm Howitzers and  200,000 x 155mm artillery rounds
- 80 Tactical Vehicles to tow 155mm Howitzers
- Hundreds of Armored High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicles
- 200 M113 Armored Personnel Carriers
- Over 7,000 small arms
- Over 50,000,000 rounds of ammunition
- 75,000 sets of body armor and helmets
- 121 Phoenix Ghost Tactical Unmanned Aerial Systems
- Tactical secure communications systems
- Night vision devices, thermal imagery systems, optics, and laser rangefinders
- Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear protective equipment
- Medical supplies to include first aid kits
- Electronic jamming equipment

More to the point, in a confrontation between the US and Russia, or more importantly, the US and China, weapon expenditure rates would be fantastically high.

Said differently, if there is a lesson learned out of the war in Ukraine that the US needs to act on now, it is this: Congress and the Pentagon need to take a whole new look at our weapons inventories.