Aviation and Missile Commander Maj. Gen. Tom O’Connor visited an industry partner in Decatur, Alabama Jan. 29 to meet with the leadership and discuss the importance of a strong defense industrial base.
Joining O’Connor in a fireside chat at the event was former commander of the Army Materiel Command Paul Kern, who opened the informal discussion with his thoughts about the newly published Department of Defense National Defense Industrial Strategy.
Published Jan. 11, the strategy will guide the DoD’s engagement, policy development, and investment in the industrial base over the next three to five years. It also identifies challenges, solutions and risks of failure. Kern said the intent of the document is to ensure the commercial and defense worlds are integrated, mitigating supply chain shortages at the lowest level.
O’Connor echoed Kern’s comments on the critical need for an industrial defense partnership, noting that decades before a formal policy was in place, the nation’s success during World War II was primarily due to its industrial capacity to meet demand and requirements. He added that the partnership is not limited to industry; it includes leveraging assets in academia, so the DoD has a competitive advantage and sets the conditions to deter its adversaries.
Kern asked O’Connor what he identified as priorities in the strategy from his perspective. The AMCOM commander said there were two key efforts: investing in the workforce in order to maintain the skills necessary to create the capacity and capability needed to be successful and ensuring supply chain resiliency.
“COVID definitely brought to the light some of the challenges within the supply chain and made us think through some of the critical vulnerabilities,” he said. “This policy is certainly the right step forward to mitigate some of those risks.”
One of those vulnerabilities is access to raw materials such as carbon fibers and composites, steel, aluminum, titanium and lithium. O’Connor said maintaining access to raw materials is also paramount so vendors can manufacture and produce, as well as support the DoD’s requirements today and its anticipated future needs.
Regarding future requirements for composite materials not just for the DoD but also for the commercial, space and automobile industries, O’Connor said projections indicate significant increases in demand across the board.
“We look for our next-generation combat systems to include a lot of composite materials,” he said. “We are starting to transition our organic industrial base to set the conditions to ensure that we have the ability to maintain, repair and leverage the composites.”
Following the chat, Kern opened the discussion up to the audience, which was composed of leaders in academia, industry and the military. Questions included working with the supply base to improve the overall supply chain, the effects of multi-year contracts on stability, and forecasting and production lead times.
O’Connor said the defense department’s biggest challenge is predictable funding, which dampens the ability to create long-term contracts.
“We are doing the best we can by engaging in strategic contracts to help mitigate the risk to the supply chain,” he said. “We are also looking at production lead times and how to reduce them, and in some cases, it’s advanced procurement of raw materials needed to help reduce those lead times. We are also sharing our five-year forecast now to provide some predictability to the supply chain. By sharing this forecast and being transparent, our hope is that the [original equipment manufacturers] are sharing that with their entire supply chain to help buy-down risk.”
During his parting comments, O’Connor encouraged the industry leaders to engage in public-private partnerships, noting the highly skilled artisan workforce and the DoD’s 15-year, multi-billion investment to modernize the Army’s organic industrial base.
“We are building agile workspaces to ensure we have streamlined processes and advanced capabilities,” he said. “At [Corpus Christi Army Depot] in particular, we are partnering with industry and academia to transform them into a center of excellence for composites. We know the future will include the ability to repair and return on composite materials, and that will be a main factor in the design of our future combat systems.”