Aviation and Missile Commander Maj. Gen. Tom O'Connor was one of the keynote speakers at the Military Aviation and Air Dominance Summit held Jan. 31-Feb. 1 in Huntsville, Alabama.
The annual event gathers experts and decision-makers from across the Department of Defense and industry to discuss initiatives and strategies needed to best equip and sustain the aviation force of the future. This year's summit focused on modernizing and enhancing military aviation platforms and systems to ensure air dominance for the future fight.
O'Connor spoke about supply chain resiliency, strengthening the defense industrial base and leveraging the organic industrial base through public-private partnerships.
"We all know we are in some challenging strategic times," he said. "We have challenges across the entire global supply chain, we have challenges in the geopolitical environment, and we have mounting U.S. national debt. There is no doubt we have leaders who will overcome and resolve and set the conditions for success, but we have to recognize the environment that we are operating in and anticipate what that future environment will be."
O'Connor said the National Defense Industrial Strategy addresses some of those challenges. 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.
"So, how are we going to set the conditions in our industrial strategy to ensure we have the industrial base to provide the strategic deterrence needed to enable us to fight and win our nation's wars?"
To set the stage and answer his own question, O'Connor reflected back on a personal story of his grandfather's service during World War II. He told the crowd the first round of ammunition his grandfather ever fired was on the beaches of Normandy. When he thought about why that occurred, O'Connor speculated that it came down to the mobilization of the industrial base and the time it took to produce the materials needed.
"I've thought about that throughout my career," he said. "We should never send Soldiers into harm's way without having the opportunity to train and ensure they're prepared to fight. We owe it to our nation, and we owe it to our allies and our partners to never put Soldiers in that position again."
Going back to his World War II history lesson, O'Connor said 733 U.S. transport ships were sunk during the war.
He said, "You think of the tons of material that was sunk at the bottom of the ocean — material that never made it to the Soldiers to set the conditions for success. When you think about the contested logistics environment that we operate in today, how would we overcome that? How are we going to fight and win in a contested environment? How will we enable the Soldiers with the material they need to have that tactical advantage on the battlefield going forward?"
The National Defense Industrial Strategy addresses some of these concerns, harkening back to another conflict in U.S. history, the Cold War, after which some of the current supply chain issues originated.
According to the strategy, "… this post-Cold War period saw the wider contraction of America's overall production capacity across many industries. Commercial manufacturing and related supply chains migrated overseas, including materials and components relevant to military needs. Over three decades, the People's Republic of China became the global industrial powerhouse in many key areas — from shipbuilding to critical minerals to microelectronics — that vastly exceeds the capacity of not just the United States but the combined output of our key European and Asian allies as well."
O'Connor said following the Cold War, the defense industrial base consolidated, and due to that consolidation, there are now gaps in supply chain resiliency and manufacturing capability, which came to light during the COVID-19 pandemic.
He said better access to raw materials is one way to mitigate those gaps and restore resiliency.
"We lost access and the capability to process and mine raw materials," O'Connor said. "As a department, we are looking at the storage of our current raw material — how much do we have and how much do we need to reserve — especially as we start thinking through the aerospace industry and the composites needed to ensure we can produce the materials needed to fly the next generation of aircraft."
The AMCOM commander said from his perspective, it means looking at the entire supply chain, not just the original equipment manufacturers. He is looking at the suppliers and the second-tier vendors to determine the raw materials needed. He also partners with the Defense Logistics Agency and the DoD to invest in critical raw materials.
O'Connor said, "Raw materials is one of those areas where if we don't have a way to buy it or a way to manufacture it here, then it becomes a critical vulnerability for us, so we must balance that risk across the entire defense department and the industrial base."
In addition to raw materials, O'Connor would like stronger collaboration with industry regarding transparency in manufacturing techniques, investments and innovations.
"We fully recognize that you have stockholders and boards of directors, and you're making business decisions, and we are not asking for proprietary information associated with any of those decisions," he said. "We want to understand the risk, and we want to understand how we can alleviate some of that risk because we're partners."
Investing in the workforce was O'Connor's final strategy to improve the supply chain — from recruiting students for the manufacturing team to training them with the latest technology.
"We are partnering with the local high schools around our depots, we are integrating with them, and we are providing the materials needed to ensure their students are able to develop the skills necessary to move into our field. We are also partnering with manufacturers to ensure we have a good understanding of the skillsets they need and how we can enable and recruit a workforce that will be able to produce the materials we need to be successful on the modern battlefield."
Before opening the floor up for questions, O'Connor spoke directly to the industry leaders about the need for public-private partnerships and the DoD's $2.4 billion investment to modernize and improve the Army's organic industrial base over the next 15 years.
"We want to ensure we have agile buildings and processes that will enable us to build and repair the next generation of equipment," he said. "Our artisans at the depots are there to enable, not to compete with you. Last year, we did over $600 million in repair-and-return of assets — engines, transmissions, pumps — items we did not have to buy because we were able to repair and return them and get them back to the field and in our warfighters' hands, enabling readiness. In some cases, those repairs were because no one in industry was willing to make them because of the return on their investment."
When it comes to obsolescence challenges, O'Connor said he understands the issues and asked his industry partners to articulate them early. He also asked for improved component reliability standards and accurate delivery schedules.
"My request is for you to partner with some of our initiatives and be transparent, so together we can mitigate some of the risks," he said. "Our Soldiers on the ground expect and need our very best, and we appreciate the collaboration and partnerships across the board."