A top Marine general worries about the U.S. military’s ability to maintain its munitions stockpiles while supporting wars in Ukraine and Israel as the services prepare for a more sophisticated conflict with China.

Lt. Gen. Karsten Heckl, head of Marine Corps Combat Development and Integration, spoke Wednesday at the U.S. Naval Institute and AFCEA International West Conference in San Diego.

Heckl referenced expensive weapons being used to defeat threats in such instances as Houthi missile strikes on watercraft in the Red Sea, Breaking Defense reported.

One such system commonly used by the Navy to knock out missiles and other threats is the Standard Missile-6. The munition can cost as much as $4.3 million per missile, according to the Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance.

“How long can our magazines maintain this?” Heckl told reporters at the conference. “SM-6 … That’s a pretty exquisite piece of gear. Very, very effective. … How long can we sustain this? And remember, right now we’re just dealing with Houthis.”

In a conflict with adversaries such as China or Iran ― each with a deeper magazine of more capable missiles ― the ability to defend against such attacks could be costly or potentially overwhelm defenses.

Heckl pointed to another recent example of cheaper weapons overwhelming expensive equipment citing claims this week by Ukraine that its forces sank a Russian landing ship in the Black Sea with several naval drones.

The three-star told reporters that the ship was sunk by, “$60,000 worth of jet skis.”

Fellow panelist Liz Nashold, deputy commander of Naval Information Forces, acknowledged the cost challenge, Breaking Defense reported.

“We’re looking for anything that can deny, degrade, deceive, destroy from a non-kinetic effect perspective so that we can save the ammunition and the ordnance that we have,” she said.

Nashold told the audience that they do have capabilities for nonkinetic options but did not disclose further details due to classification concerns.

Defense News reported recently that Vice Adm. Brendan McLane voiced frustration with laser development for such defensive options. It’s an effort that’s been in the works for more than a decade, with few systems fielded.

Such weapons could alleviate supply chain problems for more conventional weapons, but even once fully developed, lasers are not the silver bullet solution.

“Lasers are pretty effective, but they take time,” Bryan Clark, who leads the Center for Defense Concepts and Technology at the Hudson Institute think tank, told Defense News. “You’ve got to have the laser shoot the drone for several seconds, which means it can only shoot one at a time.”

Those weapons drawdowns had not been planned as part of the fiscal year 2023 budget at the time, which meant funding available then would not fully replenish U.S. weapons stocks.

During congressional testimony in 2022, Heckl raised his concerns about depleting the U.S. military magazine depth as early shipments of weapons to Ukraine hit the inventory.

In remarks this week, Heckl said the prohibitive cost curve of U.S. systems in these scenarios was part of a wider military weapons supply problem.

“Whether it’s munitions, whether it’s building SM-whatever, the real underpinning issue here is the anemic condition of [the] industrial base,” he said. “How did we win World War II? It was industry … How did we win the first Cold War against the Soviets? Industrial economic might. We spent the Soviets into the ground.”

But that same strategy, of outspending rivals, may will not be possible against China, a much larger economic power than the Soviet Union, Heckl said.

Todd South has written about crime, courts, government and the military for multiple publications since 2004 and was named a 2014 Pulitzer finalist for a co-written project on witness intimidation. Todd is a Marine veteran of the Iraq War.

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