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Short War, Long War, and Industrial Policy

Matthew Zolnowski


In the coming weeks, the Department of Defense will unveil its first National Defense Industrial Strategy, the intent of which is to shape a “generational change” in defense policy development, programs, and investment in the defense industrial base. 

Understandably, the proximate causes for this Strategy are the significant disruptions to global supply chains throughout the COVID-19 pandemic and the wars in Ukraine and the Middle East. Both events are comingled with simmering geopolitical tensions and military modernization in the Asia-Pacific.

As yet, the Strategy’s topline is to create a “resilient” supply chain that can produce defense items and technology “at speed, scale, and cost” while “ensuring workforce readiness” and delivering “flexible acquisitions”.[1] It is difficult to imagine that either the Department or the companies comprising the defense industrial base want the opposite, and yet, many Department and industry studies of the defense industrial base over the past decade characterize the industrial base precisely this way.[2]

How, then, are the Department and industry to square this circle?

This piece attempts to address the question by retuning to first principles. Namely, the priority of the U.S. defense industrial base is to deliver the military products, services, and technologies that U.S. Armed Forces require in combat. Defining the latter, though, is the sole purview of the Department of Defense, and fundamental disagreements on the nature of armed conflict lie at the foundation of the industrial outcomes we see today.

Short War and Long War Theses

From the close of the Korean War to the present, a central question for defense spending priorities is a heated debate on the duration and intensity of a conflict involving U.S. Armed Forces. These perspectives can be reduced to two ideal-types: the “short war” school and the “long war” school.

During the Cold War, the short war school argued that a military confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union may have little to no prior-warning, and this conflict would be characterized by extremely high losses of war materiel, equipment, and people in the opening phases. If either side’s conventional force failed, then nuclear weapons use was likely. Thus, the core focus of U.S. Armed Forces should be deterring a direct conflict with the Soviet Union.

In its post-Cold War evolution, the short war school notes that the U.S. sustained a large army that could overwhelm any minor power. Similarly, for those handful of states that also maintained large armies since the fall of the Berlin Wall, regular investment in training and cutting-edge technology provides the U.S. with an incredible conventional overmatch. These combined advantages are so great that any conflict is likely to end within weeks or months.

The long war school, on the other hand, contends that the nature of armed conflict is unknowable. This uncertainty drives the long war school to consider a range of scenarios. At their worst, U.S. Armed Forces may be engaged in a protracted, high-intensity conflict that would require the mobilization of the entire U.S. economy. 

In its historical context, the long war school noted a range of alternative military conflict scenarios, besides a direct confrontation with the Soviet Union. A handful of examples include an indirect conflict between proxies or a direct conflict with a Communist or Communist-aligned adversary other than the Soviet Union. Given the high cost of a direct U.S.-Soviet confrontation, especially with a nuclear exchange, the long war school cited these alternative cases as more likely for planning purposes.

In its contemporary iteration, the long war school acknowledges the conventional strength and technological overmatch of U.S. Armed Forces, demonstrated in the First Gulf War, the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, and elsewhere. However, this school contends that the demonstrated resilience of U.S. adversaries in the face of military strikes, sanctions, and more often leaves short war proponents unprepared.

The Industrial Policy Synthesis

Taking the next step, each of these schools of thought suggests very different allocations of resources, and even in an organization as large as the Department of Defense, funding, people, and time are finite. Thus, these schools can have outsized, if quiet, impact on the industrial base. 

Both the legacy and contemporary short war arguments arrive at the same preferred defense industrial base outcome. Namely, limited defense dollars are better allocated to projects that directly support current, fielded forces and leap-forward conventional capabilities. Greater combat power, today, deters the protracted fight that the long war school so fears and prevents any potential rival from catching-up.

Honing this technological edge means that the defense industrial base will need to specialize, chasing the next incremental enhancement. Specialization, in turn, drives consolidation, as those companies without contracts for current systems lose or never develop the know-how to compete. Furthermore, since an anticipated conflict is expected to end rapidly, the potential harm from a limited pool of suppliers or overseas sources — even adversarial ones — is unlikely to be borne.

In the long war construct, the uncertainty associated with a future conflict drives hedging behavior. In brief, defense dollars must be balanced between the current force and preparedness and response programs, particularly the civilian component that implements them. Focusing on achieving speed to scale, as threats emerge, delivers deterrence across a broader array of contingencies.

From time immemorial, military spending has increased during conflict, and so the core of preparedness and response is creating connective tissue with the lower tiers of the defense industrial ecosystem that feed military production. Single-point failures and vendor concentration become targets for competition and contingency contracting, to maintain a diverse vendor base with similar capabilities. In anticipation of a potentially lengthy conflict, Government has an active role in the market to ensure material and component sourcing is resilient to strategic interference. 

A Path Forward

As ideal types, neither the short war nor the long war schools are wholly “right” or “wrong”; instead, each provides valuable insight, and an internal counterbalance, as the security environment changes over time. With the National Defense Industrial Strategy waiting in the wings though, the first test for the Strategy is whether it clearly states its war-fighting context, followed by what the Department expects the defense industrial base to do and when that capability is expected within that context. Absent such vision, implementation — even if resourced — may be muddled.

Regardless of whether one is a proponent of the short or long war school, two areas should come into immediate focus for the Department’s implementation efforts:

Deliver Civilian Staff for Mobilization Programs: The programs to implement the Defense Production Act of 1950 (50 U.S.C. 4501 et seq.) (DPA) at the Department of Defense reside within the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Industrial Base Policy (IBP), the author of the Strategy. According to an IBP presentation to industry at the end of Fiscal Year 2023, only three (3) Federal employees execute all DPA activities.[3] This staffing level is wholly inadequate to meet the nation’s needs, and Department leadership must take immediate action to correct this longstanding shortfall.

Integrate Industry and Industrial Base Planning into War-Fighting Scenarios: Notwithstanding its numerous reports, the Department regularly models only two sectors of the industrial base for defense needs in a military conflict: critical minerals[4] and conventional ammunition[5]. Results from the latter are not available publicly, but in the Strategic and Critical Materials 2023 Report on Stockpile Requirements, the Department expects defense shortfalls of 69 materials worth $2.4 billion.[6] These modeling practices should be adapted elsewhere (e.g., shipbuilding, aircraft) to begin uncovering the stress these sectors are likely to experience, and as appropriate, industry should participate in defense planning, so industrial expectations are clear and lines of communication are open before the fight.

[1] D. Vergun, “DOD Aims to Publish 1st National Defense Industrial Strategy,” Department of Defense (20 October 2023),

[2] See “Annual Industrial Capabilities Report to Congress” at the Office of the Assistance Secretary of Defense for Industrial Base Policy (; National Defense Industrial Association, Vital Signs (10 February 2023),

[3] J. Sopcisak, “Manufacturing Capability Expansion & Investment Prioritization (MCEIP) Overview, Dist. A” Refractory Metals Association (27 September 2023)

[4] 50 U.S.C. 98h-5 “Biennial report on stockpile requirements”,

[5] HQDA, Army Munitions Requirements, Prioritization, and Authorizations Management Policy (March 2021),

[6] C. Keys, “Emergency Access to Strategic and Critical Materials: The National Defense Stockpile,” Congressional Research Service – R-47833 (14 November 2023),

About the Author

Matthew Zolnowski

Matthew Zolnowski

Global Fellow;
President, Greyfriars LLC
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Wahba Institute for Strategic Competition

The Wahba Institute for Strategic Competition works to shape conversations and inspire meaningful action to strengthen technology, trade, infrastructure, and energy as part of American economic and global leadership that benefits the nation and the world.  Read more