Western countries have not only lost the industrial capacity required to fight a war, but they’re rapidly forgetting how to make the things they used to — and should consider bringing retired workers back to pass on their knowledge to the next generation, defence experts say.
While recent headlines have highlighted China and Russia leapfrogging the US in cutting edge systems such as hypersonic missiles, a report in The Wall Street Journal this week highlighted perhaps a more disturbing reality — that the world’s leading superpower no longer has the expertise required for certain low-tech manufacturing.
The Wall Street Journal report detailed the challenges currently facing the $US13.3 billion ($A20.7 billion) program to procure new polar icebreaker ships to safeguard American interests in the Arctic.
The US Coast Guard only has two heavy icebreakers — one of which has reached the end of its life — and hasn’t launched a new one since 1976.
“Delivery of the first new icebreaker has slipped to 2028 from 2024 as designers, engineers and welders grapple with something the US hasn’t done in decades: reliably shape hardened steel that is more than an inch thick into a curved, reinforced ship’s hull,” the report said.
“Out of practice, US shipbuilders have had to relearn how to design and build the specialised vessel, say officials in the industry and the government.”
By comparison, Russia has at least three dozen icebreakers suitable for the Arctic, and China has four.
“Higher-strength steels require very skilled people,” Jeff Moskaluk, senior vice president at steel producer SSAB Americas, told the newspaper. “It’s not like you just treat it the same as any other piece of steel. It takes a beating — that’s exactly what the steel is designed for.”
The lack of technical expertise has been compounded by a shortage of shipwrights, with employment in the industry totalling just 154,800, down from a peak of 1.3 million during World War II.
“We’ve been focusing on advanced hi-tech systems like drones and precisions weapons but the basic stuff that does require a different sort of knowledge, that knowledge is now lost and will have to be reacquired,” said Dr Malcolm Davis, senior analyst in defence strategy and capability at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.
“It’s important in the sense that if we are facing a more dangerous future, particularly in terms of major power competition potentially becoming conflict, then we need to be ready for the possibility of traditional war, which of course then has a serious defence industry dimension to it.”
Dr Davis warned the loss of technical expertise, alongside industrial capacity, was a serious issue facing the west amid rising tensions with China and Russia.
“When we’re talking about the basics like building ships, that’s a key problem,” he said.
“We have let our shipbuilding sector go and the Chinese haven’t, they’re building it up, so from our perspective we’ve got to somehow recapture that knowledge. It may be the case that what is needed is the US government or Australian government engage with people who have retired from that sector, bring them back in to educate the new generation, don’t just waste that knowledge and skill.”
It is “possible”, according to Dr Davis, but the government “has to make a determined effort from the get-go, they have to start moving quickly — and democracies are notoriously slow to make decisions”.
“This is going to be our problem — we’re going to be moving too slowly to react to a rapidly changing threat,” he said.
The problem extends far beyond shipbuilding.
The war in Ukraine has been dominated by old-fashioned artillery — and Kyiv is using shells faster than European and American factories can supply them as stocks are depleted across the west.
“Look at Ukraine at the moment — the US and its allies are really struggling to keep the flow of weapons going because they simply don’t have the industrial capacity to produce them quickly enough,” Dr Davis said.
“Modern warfare consumes platforms and systems at a ferocious rate.”
As of July, the US had supplied more than two million artillery rounds to Ukraine since the start of the 2022 invasion, according to the Pentagon, while the European Union has supplied around 250,000 this year, CNN reports.
In a viral tweet earlier this year, historian Nicholas Mulder put the scale of the west’s deindustrialisation into perspective.
“Austria-Hungary in 1916 produced 18 times, tsarist Russia 80 times and imperial Germany 129 times as many artillery shells as the entire EU can produce in 2023 (650,000),” he wrote.
“Even after completing a planned 500 per cent increase by 2028 the US will only be at 1/12th of peak Habsburg output.”
Dr Davis, who predicts a war between the US and China over Taiwan will kick off either in the second half of this decade or in the early 2030s, warns that conflict would “dwarf Ukraine in terms of its scale, scope and intensity”.
“The key question I think the US faces is not just manufacturing hi-tech weapons and munitions but also the more basic industrial capabilities … what does it take to manufacture trucks and tanks and armoured fighting vehicles, to build ships?” he said.
“If we’re talking a protracted war lasting months or years, that really comes to the fore, the ability to produce munitions on a large scale.”
That heavy industry capacity “also needs to be supercharged by applying fourth industrial revolution technologies to it, [such as] what can we do with additive manufacturing and printing, computer simulations and that sort of stuff to build systems quicker”.
“I think that’s where the US and its allies really need to focus — how do they scale up industrial capacity very quickly to sustain a high output of products, be that whatever is needed, and [be] agile enough to switch,” he said.
Marcus Hellyer, head of research at Strategic Analysis Australia, said it was “no secret that western countries have essentially outsourced manufacturing capacity and large sections of their industrial base over the last four or five decades”.
“We don’t just see it in shipbuilding but in automotive manufacturing, shoes, clothing, any of the staples of modern life,” he said.
“What we’re going through now is that kind of realisation that the globalisation project has not necessarily been a total success. Particularly with Covid we’ve realised that it’s created huge risks for a number of countries because they no longer have the ability to manufacture key goods, whether that be medications or simple things such as face masks.”
The war in Ukraine is showing the west that modern industrialised warfare relies on huge manufacturing capability and “we have again outsourced the ability to manufacture those munitions in a cradle-to-the-grave way”.
“We’re learning that sometimes it may be worth paying a premium to [keep certain industries], but it’s difficult to sustain that will in peacetime as consumers don’t want to pay them and governments don’t want to pay them,” he said.
Mr Hellyer said there were a number of factors behind the loss of manufacturing expertise.
“Most countries don’t need a lot of icebreakers,” he said.
“Australia doesn’t have the ability to design warships because we need a new warship every generation, which is 25 to 30 years, so there isn’t the demand to support the critical mass of ship designers. We may reach a point where even economies the size of the US can’t necessarily support a full-spectrum technological and industrial base for every conceivable item — but that doesn’t mean its friends and partners don’t. Japan and South Korea still have very robust shipbuilding sectors.”
He added, “One of the tenets of globalisation is relying on your friends and allies for certain things.”
Another problem, Mr Hellyer said, is the increasing technological complexity of ships and other military systems required to address emerging threats is adding design and construction delays and “exponential” costs.
“You see this in virtually every western navy, because ships and aircraft are so expensive they’re buying fewer and fewer of them,” he said.
“For years the US Navy has said it wants to get to 355 warships but it’s actually going in the opposite direction. One of the lessons of Ukraine is this idea we’ve got to pursue simplicity.”
According to Dr Davis, a serious conflict in Australia’s region is more likely than not within the next 10 years.
“Xi Jinping wants to get Taiwan under China’s control on his watch and obviously he’s not getting any younger, and at the same time China’s facing serious economic and demographic challenges ahead,” he said.
“That is more likely to mean Xi and the Chinese government are more willing to take risks and be more provocative.”
He predicts China will ramp up “grey-zone operations” against Taiwan in the next few years “to try to force acceptance of unification under China’s terms”.
“I think that will fail because Taiwanese people have seen Hong Kong and Xinjiang and don’t want to be part of China under Communist rule,” he said.
“At a certain point, the Chinese Communist Party will face a fundamental choice — let Taiwan go, which would be the end of their credibility in the eyes of the Chinese people, or use military force. The danger period is really from about 2026-27 onwards to about 2035.”
Meanwhile, some have suggested hypersonic missiles represent the latest paradigm shift.
Just as the HMS Dreadnought in the early 1900s immediately rendered all previous battleships obsolete with its heavy, long-range guns, war-games conducted by the Chinese earlier this year claimed hypersonic anti-ship missiles could destroy “with certainty” the world’s largest aircraft carrier, the USS Gerald R. Ford, in a hypothetical scenario in which US vessels approached a disputed island in the South China Sea.
“It hasn’t sunk in yet,” said Mr Hellyer.
“People have been saying for a long time autonomous systems or cheap munitions are going to revolutionise war, yet we still keep exclusively building complex and extravagantly expensive crewed platforms.”
He added, “And maybe we will learn on day one of a large-scale war in the Indo-Pacific which of those paths was the correct one.”