How to Lose a War Before It Starts

The United States can make explosives, but its ability to replenish shells, missiles, vehicles, and ships is open to serious question simply because of the loss of so much of our manufacturing capability.

Rudyard Kipling’s poem “The Dutch in the Medway” is highly instructive as to what happens when our manufacturing base can’t maintain a supposedly invincible war machine, in this case the Royal Navy. The poem relates to a disastrous defeat for the Royal Navy in 1667 at the hands of Dutch admiral Michiel de Ruyter. It’s worth repeating part of it here because it underscores the problem with a lack of preventive maintenance, spare parts, and other supplies. Oakum, by the way, is a fiber made from hemp that is used for caulking purposes, and residents of England’s workhouses (such as in Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist) had to recycle it by hand from tarred rope and cordage.



If we think it can’t get any worse, it can, CBS News reports.10 “The Hellfire missile—launched from helicopters, jets, and predator drones—has been a critical weapon in the war on terror. But the propellant that fires the missile must be imported from China.” This is the same country that is threatening to start a war with Taiwan and, were the United States to intervene, or even not, it could simply cut off a vital part of the Hellfire’s bill of materials. We would eventually develop our own supply, much as we developed synthetic rubber when Japan cut off our supplies of natural rubber during World War II. But we would meanwhile be in serious trouble. This is a strong argument for domestic-only, or at least North American-only, defense supply chains, because those could be interrupted only by a successful attack on North America, as opposed to Pacific and Atlantic trade routes.

World War III may have already begun

Our ships in every harbour
Be neither whole nor sound,
And, when we seek to mend a leak,
No oakum can be found;
Or, if it is, the caulker,
And carpenters also,
For lack of pay have gone away,
And this the Dutchmen know!

One way to win before one fights is to gain control of enough of the other side’s vital supply chain and/or manufacturing capability to ensure that, once the war actually begins, the opponent is unable to build, repair, supply, or replenish its military establishment. This is exactly what China is doing at this moment, and it is a clear and present danger to the United States.

The solutions are simple

Now, the United States has a peacetime economy in which lead times for new weapons might be measured in years. Russia and China are running war economies.

‘The Dutch in the Medway’

I say take him at his word, as no responsible head of state makes threats of that nature. The United States must regard China as a de facto, albeit not yet de jure, enemy, and the best way to ensure that it does not become a de jure enemy is to rebuild and restructure our manufacturing base. We must accordingly use proven and well-established lean manufacturing and supply chain management methods for which the Automotive Industry Action Group (AIAG), Society of Manufacturing Engineers (SME), American Society for Supply Chain Management (ASCM), and others offer extensive guidance. If we win World War III in our factories and supply chains, we will probably never have to fight it.


Quality and efficiency principles began to convey decisive advantages to American manufacturers roughly 120 years ago, during the era of Henry Ford, Frederick Winslow Taylor, Harrington Emerson, and Frank Gilbreth. We must use these principles as widely as possible to rebuild the manufacturing base we would need to win a major conflict.

1. Wuest, Thorsten, and Morford, Michael. “It’s Time to Revisit the ‘Arsenal of Democracy.’ Including Smaller Manufacturers Is Key.” Industry Week, Feb. 21, 2024.
2. Fabino, Alexander. “Russia Dramatically Increased Weapons Production in 2023 Despite Sanctions.” Newsweek, Jan. 1, 2024.
3. Parker, George, and Rathbone, John-Paul. “UK armed forces would last just ‘five days’ in a war, senior MP warns.” Financial Times, Feb. 10, 2023.
4. Murray, Jessica. “British army would exhaust capabilities after two months of war, MPs told.” The Guardian, Feb. 4, 2024.
5. Hay, George. “The Tragedy of the Shells.” The National Archive, March 5, 2015.
6. David, Saul. “How Germany lost the WWI arms race.” BBC News, Feb. 16, 2012.
7. Science History Institute. “Fritz Haber.”
8. Liebermann, Oren, and Bertrand, Natasha. “U.S. eyes weapons stockpiles as concern grows about supporting both Ukraine and Israel’s wars.” CNN, Oct. 11, 2023.
9. Peter G. Peterson Foundation. “U.S. Defense Spending Compared to Other Countries.” April 24, 2023.
10. Andrews, Wyatt. “Some U.S. military parts imported from China.” CBS News, Jan. 9, 2013.
11. Sun Tzu, Lionel Giles translation. The Art of War. Project Gutenberg. 1910.
12. Stewart, Phil, and Ali, Idrees. “How the U.S. is preparing for a Chinese invasion of Taiwan.” Reuters, Jan. 31, 2024.

Xi Jinping has fortunately not, however, followed Sun Tzu’s advice to keep plans secret until he is ready to act upon them. “Xi has ordered his military to be ready to take Taiwan by 2027, U.S. officials say. But many analysts see that as an attempt to galvanize his military rather than a timeline for invasion.”12

What do quality and productivity have to do with World War III, which we all hope will never happen? The answer is everything. A massive loss of American manufacturing capability between 1945 and 2024 has conceded enormous advantages to aggressor nations that might be inclined to break the peace.

Although the United States seems to be in better condition than its NATO allies, we’re already experiencing our own shell crisis. CNN reports8 that “Concern is growing within the Pentagon over the potential need to stretch its increasingly scarce ammunition stockpiles to support Ukraine and Israel in two separate wars, according to multiple U.S. defense officials.” That is, we don’t even have enough ammunition to supply our own armed forces despite the fact that we spend more on defense than the next 10 countries combined.9 Compare the situation to that in World War II, when Ford’s Willow Run bomber plant could produce a B-24 Liberator bomber every hour, and 18 per day. (The plant had two 9-hour shifts.)

That was 79 years ago. In a recent IndustryWeek article, the authors warn, “Since the end of the Cold War, many Western powers have reduced their standing military personnel, paused or stopped their conscript services, and reduced munition stockpiles as well as defense manufacturing capacity. These major decisions are not easily reversible, even with the necessary political will. A startling example of this can be seen in the 40% decline in the past decade of U.S. small manufacturers engaged in defense work.”1

The IndustryWeek article cites a similar shortage, not of caulkers and carpenters but skilled industrial workers as well as the closure of small manufacturing shops. During WWI, the U.K. and its rivals were woefully unprepared to fight a war that none of them probably wanted, which led to the Shell Crisis of 1915. All the armies had artillery, but not enough shells to meet sustained intensive combat on the Western Front.5 “Field Marshal Sir John French (commanding the (British Expeditionary Force)) claimed that the rate at which shells were arriving in late September 1914 allowed seven rounds per gun per day, while during the previous fortnight their average expenditure had been twice that.”

Although NATO-supplied weapons have proven far superior to Russian equipment in Ukraine, we need to remember that the Russian Federation has been fighting for more than two years and has ramped up its military production accordingly. A Newsweek headline warns, “Russia Dramatically Increased Weapons Production in 2023 Despite Sanctions.”2 It has, in fact, done exactly what the United States and Soviet Union both did during World War II, when entire industries were turned over to the production of weapons. International Business Machines, for example, made M-1 carbines in its Poughkeepsie, New York, plant, while Ford Motor Co. and Pullman, the rail car manufacturer, were among the companies that manufactured Sherman tanks.

Our NATO allies are even worse off than we are. Although the United Kingdom has a well-trained and highly motivated military establishment, it lacks the means to fight more than a short action. Some estimate that the U.K. could fight for only five days.3 The Guardian says two months.4

A shortage of skilled industrial workers, the closure of small manufacturing shops, reduced munition stockpiles, and defense manufacturing capacity could put the United States at a military disadvantage.

Ammunition stockpile depletion is a serious warning sign

We have the perception, a holdover from 1945, that the United States can manufacture limitless quantities of equipment and supplies. This is exactly how we won World War II. While human lives are irreplaceable, inanimate objects are expendable, and we produced them more rapidly than the Axis could destroy them. Germany, in particular, had wunderwaffen (wonder weapons) such as jet fighters, Tiger II tanks, and V-2 ballistic missiles. The latter could not, unlike bombers and V-1 cruise missiles, be intercepted or shot down. The Sherman tank was no match for the Tiger in a face-to-face fight—but more than 50,000 Shermans were produced, compared to about 1,800 Tiger tanks.

The outbreaks of WWI and WWII had definite dates and times; Dec. 7, 1941, for the United States in the latter. World War III may, however, have already started in the Far East and we don’t even know it. Sun Tzu’s Art of War has been China’s military playbook for about 2,500 years. It was the foundation of Mao Tse-tung’s Little Red Book, and it explains how North Vietnam’s inferior military forces compelled the United States to give up in 1975. “Thus it is that in war the victorious strategist only seeks battle after the victory has been won, whereas he who is destined to defeat first fights and afterwards looks for victory.”11

In the documentary How Germany Lost the WWI Arms Race, presenter David Saul6 adds that, “By May 1915, so serious was the ‘shell crisis’ that most British guns had been reduced to firing just four shells a day, and it seemed as if the war was going to be lost not in the trenches of Flanders but the factories of Britain.” The British chemist Chaim Weizmann is known mostly as the first president of Israel, but his implementation of a way to convert grain into acetone to make cordite saved the U.K. from running out of ammunition. His counterpart, Fritz Haber, who developed nitrogen fixation (nitrates are required for explosives), kept Germany supplied as well.7