When Albert Einstein famously said, “I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones,” he was implying that the third world war would obliterate mankind’s advanced society because it would be waged with nuclear weapons — and any conflict that followed thereafter would be fought with whatever implements humanity could find in its barbaric state.
Einstein had no idea that the next world war (which, according to Russian sources at least, is already underway in Ukraine) would possibly be fought with sticks and stones not because nukes annihilated advanced society, but because the industrialization that modern societies rely on to produce sophisticated weapons systems were gutted by short-sighted politicians and greedy corporatists in peacetime.
The illegal Russian invasion of Ukraine triggered a response from the West that was both admirable and haphazard. Not wanting to see Ukraine return to being under the sway of Moscow, Washington found willing allies in the Ukrainian people. If the West, as led by the United States, could provide military assistance in the form of weapons, intelligence, and medical support, the Ukrainians would do the fighting — and dying — against the Russian Army that had invaded their lands. Kyiv was asking Washington to become the “arsenal of democracy” that President Franklin D. Roosevelt had envisioned the United States being during the last great war in Europe.
Initially, the United States and its NATO allies did just that: They overwhelmed Ukraine with a consistent supply of the weapons that Kyiv’s defenders would need to beat back the Russian advance (Stingers and Javelin anti-tank systems being the most prominent). The plan has worked swimmingly, with Russian forces having been pushed away from their ambitious assault on Central Ukraine; the pro-democracy government of Ukraine, therefore, has survived Vladimir Putin’s plot to decapitate the regime, thanks largely to the military aid provided to Ukraine by the Americans and their European allies.
The Russians, meanwhile, have struggled to achieve their initial strategic goal of decapitating the Ukrainian government. This is partly because of the effective resistance that Ukraine has mustered with Western technical assistance. Russia’s military failures are also partly due to supply chain woes. In the West, we have been inundated with images of Russian tanks breaking down on the sides of Ukrainian roads — and Ukrainian farmers harassing the would-be invaders or even absconding with the dilapidated Russian vehicles as Russian troops who had manned those downed tanks run for cover. Reports have circulated that, as the war has dragged on, Russian stores of ammunition, cruise missiles, and other weapons that are essential for achieving victory in a modern war are dangerously depleted.
These developments all help the Ukrainian cause for freedom. Yet, sadly, it is not only the Russians who are being depleted of vital weapons and supplies as the war has lasted a meager 10 weeks. New reports have now been disseminated to an increasingly concerned public that the West’s major defense contractors are unable to replenish the drained stocks of Javelin anti-tank missiles and stingers.
Shortages abound all along the Ukrainian axis of advance, largely because the war has so badly drained American and European supplies. And while the Ukrainians are still able to press on, the longer that the war rages, the more likely that Western suppliers will be unable to rearm and resupply the Ukrainians. To compound problems, Western defense contractors have already stated that they will be unable to meet the increased demand for Ukrainian warfighters. So, unless the war abates anytime soon (unlikely as neither Ukraine nor Russia appears interested in settling their conflict peacefully), both sides in the war may yet be deploying the old sticks-and-stones approach to this budding world war.
For the West, specifically the Americans, we should be asking our leaders how we got to this place where weapons that are both essential and basic for modern warfare — such as Javelin anti-tank missiles and Stingers — are suddenly unavailable in the numbers needed to fight a modern war?
The answer is, of course, supply chain woes. But the supply chain crisis precedes the outbreak of the war as well as the COVID-19 pandemic which disrupted global supply chains and industrial production, thanks to the onerous lockdowns various countries imposed. The reason for the shortage is largely because of decades of short-sighted and greedy de-industrialization policies implemented by Western governments at the behest of Western multinational firms.
“You know what the trouble is, Brucey?” the working-class anti-hero in the popular HBO series The Wire intones, Frank Sobotka, complains, “We used to make s—- in this country.”
When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the United States had already been flooding the arsenals of the Allies with massive amounts of modern weapons so that they could hold the line against the dictators who were making war upon them. By the time the attack on Pearl Harbor had ended, Roosevelt had gone to Congress seeking a declaration of war. When he got that declaration, America had the latent industrial capacity to not only continue supplying the Allies — at increased rates — but to supply an enlarged American military that was fighting across the world for many years to come.
After just 10 weeks of fighting, there are real concerns being voiced by weapons manufacturers about their ability to maintain the supplies of critical weapons into Ukraine. Russia is suffering similar drains on its supplies, although as Moscow shifts its strategic objectives to the more obtainable goal of holding Eastern Ukraine and possibly building a land bridge through Southern Ukraine, the Ukrainian military will be the one struggling to keep their operational tempo going as those Western military supplies dwindle.
If, as the Russians insist, we are already in another world war and the West has already almost depleted its supply of essential weapons, one must wonder how the future of America’s fighting capabilities will be negatively impacted. It doesn’t look good, that’s for sure. As my friend and colleague, David P. Goldman are so fond of saying, “You may not be interested in industrial policy, but industrial policy is interested in you.”
American leaders have so badly ignored industrial policy that we may yet lose a world war because we’ve gutted our manufacturing capabilities for so long that we can’t recover. And that may be the real victory for Mr. Putin: depriving the Americans of their ability to wage a war via protracted, industrial exhaustion.
If Washington’s leaders are so convinced that risking a world war with Russia is essential to our national security, then they must enact a sweeping, bipartisan program that immediately returns American manufacturing capabilities to the United States and makes America more self-sufficient. Otherwise, the United States will be defeated by depletion — and once America’s enemies realize that we can no longer threaten them because of severe limits on the availability of our arms, then the real challenge to America’s military begins … and the possibility of defeat becomes painfully real.
• Brandon J. Weichert is the author of “Winning Space: How America Remains A Superpower” (Republic Book Publishers). He is a geopolitical analyst who manages The Weichert Report: World News Done Right and can be followed via Twitter @WeTheBrandon.