Supply chains and logistics are an integral and important part of a successful manufacturing operation. They have always been so, but with the advent of the COVID-19 virus and its having shut down the world’s economy for a time during a period of global quarantine, supply-chain issues have since taken center stage for consumers and manufacturers alike.
In response to the supply-chain challenges facing the United States, President Biden signed Executive Order 14017 in February 2021 to improve supply-chain resilience and protect against material short-ages. One group that took notice and responded to this order was the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD), which analyzed their own dependence on supply chains in pursuit of their sacred mission to defend the U.S. and its interests around the world.
The DoD released a report in February 2022 titled “Securing Defense-Critical Supply Chains.” According to Dr. Kathleen H. Hicks, Deputy Secretary of Defense, the report’s recommendations “focus on how we can increase domestic production capacity and renew the sources of our economic security. We will continue investing in the production and manufacturing capabilities that will enable a modern, technology-enabled defense industrial base. Because we know that workers animate supply chains, we will foster development of an industrial workforce to ensure the right skillsets are available as needed to meet our requirements. We will also contribute to our national defense stockpile and utilize it to provide flexibility in the case of disruptions or emergencies.”
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The DoD prioritized four areas in which critical vulnerabilities pose the most pressing threat to national security.
- Kinetic capabilities: current missile systems and advanced and developing missile capabilities, including hypersonic weapons, as well as directed energy weapons
- Energy storage and batteries: high-capacity batteries, with a focus on lithium batteries
- Castings and forgings: metals or composites developed into key parts and manufacturing tools through high-intensity processes
- Microelectronics: state-of-the-practice and legacy microelectronics, as well as state-of the-art microelectronics
Our primary interest here is the third item related to the supply chain for castings and forgings, but there are what the DoD terms “strategic enablers” that underlie all four key focus areas defined above. The DoD states that “fragility or gaps in these enablers create operational and strategic risk and ad-dressing the challenges in each is critical to building overall supply chain resilience.” The strategic enablers are:
- Workforce (trade skills through doctoral-level engineering skills)
- Cyber posture (industrial security, counterintelligence and cybersecurity)
- Manufacturing (current manufacturing practices, as well as advanced technology like additive manufacturing)
- Small business (the role of key members of DoD supply chains)
The DoD recognizes that cast and forged (C&F) parts are critical to the development, procurement and sustainment of all major defense systems by the Defense Industrial Base. They are used in almost all platforms (ships, submarines, aircraft, ground vehicles, etc.), kinetic weapons and weapon systems (guns, missiles and rockets, bombs, ammunition, artillery pieces, etc.), and many supporting systems (vehicles, powered support equipment, etc.). In 2020, the Defense Logistics Agency (DLA) identified 30,061 out of 32,597 specialized end items that contain C&F maintenance, repair and operations (MRO) parts.
Not only are cast and forged products used directly in materiel of all sorts, but they are also used by many of the industries that manufacture these items for the DoD, such as machine tools, heavy equipment and other manufacturing systems. Yet dependence on foreign sources for key materials and production capabilities is itself a threat and remains a strategic vulnerability to our national security. Quoting from the DoD report, “The United States needs a robust and secure C&F industry and supply chain to provide reliable, timely delivery of the parts used in DoD’s operational systems and to produce and sustain new systems.”
For decades this country has pursued or tolerated an assortment of regulations and policies within which it was difficult for its forges and foundries to operate. Over time, this scenario forced many domestic metalworking facilities to shut down or move their operations. This loss of homegrown capacity left a global market-share void that was quickly taken up by other manufacturing economies around the globe, including ones that are hostile to our government and economic systems.
Concurrently, supply chains became more important to the remaining domestic manufacturing base. They also became more vulnerable to all sorts of disruptions related to supply-and-demand patterns, global transportation issues, currency exchanges, warring countries and differing political ideologies.
The good news is that this nation is awakening to its overdependence on supply chains and its need to nurture, or rather re-nurture, a sustainable manufacturing environment to support its national security and economic growth.
We’ll end with a selected quote from the Conclusion section of the DoD’s report: “As highlighted by the global COVID-19 pandemic, fragile supply chains can have far-reaching and long-lasting implications to economic prosperity and national defense. The DoD will need to work closely both internally and with its partners – interagency, international and industry – to build strong and responsive supply chains in the coming years.”