The concern about shortages of masks, ventilators, hospital gowns and testing kits got me to thinking about the Vietnam War, when I was the senior civilian official responsible for dealing with shortages in helicopters, ammunition, uniforms and other urgently needed items. The actions we took enabled us to avoid the worst of most of the problems we faced. Perhaps they have some relevance to today’s worries.
First, timely and accurate information was needed to manage critical supply areas. To give us advance warning of potential shortages, we set up a special system called “Flagpole Reports.” (“Run it up the flagpole so everyone can see it.”) The first reports from Vietnam identified emerging shortages in aircraft flares, 40-mm ammunition, collapsible petroleum storage tanks and other combat needs. Individuals were assigned to each problem, and their corrective actions were reviewed personally by the secretary of defense.
Second, to ensure that crucial items arrived when they were needed, we put together a rapid-resupply system called the Red Ball Express — a name inherited from the famed World War II Allied cargo convoy — at Travis Air Force Base in California. The planes had large red ball markings, and space was guaranteed for the needed supplies and equipment.
Ventilators appear to be the most critical items today, but back then it was munitions. Nothing is more serious in war than a shortage of ammunition. Real or imagined deficiencies can resonate in the press and the public, agitate Congress and alarm the commanders in the field. So, the problem demanded constant, top-level attention. An Army major general was placed in charge, accurate and timely reports were initiated, production at existing sources was accelerated, and new facilities were started. Despite ammunition requirements that exceeded the levels in World War II, the rapidly expanding demands from field commanders were met.
Strikes and work stoppages were a constant worry. While federal officials maintained a strict neutrality with respect to the substance of labor-management disputes, we analyzed the impact of each impending or actual work stoppage. In many instances we met with the contending parties to emphasize the urgency of their work.
When a serious production problem arose, we dealt personally with top management. For example, William M. Allen, Boeing’s chief executive at the time, was asked to meet with us because Vertol, a helicopter company acquired by Boeing, was far behind schedule with the vitally needed Chinook helicopter. Allen reassigned his best manufacturing executive from Seattle to the Vertol plant, and production quickly rose to the necessary levels.
Government officials and executives from Bell Aircraft developed plans to increase production of “Huey” helicopters from 50 a month to 100 and finally 150 by selecting a new subcontractor to augment Bell’s facilities. The Army’s top logistics chief was given authority to decide whether spare parts should be sent to combat troops or to the evolving production base. By centralizing inventory control in this manner, the optimum use was made of scarce supplies.
The U.S. economy can work miracles when given direction and called upon to respond. It takes nothing away from the brave men and women who brought victory in World War II to say that without the outpouring of weapons and equipment from U.S. companies, the war might have been lost. American companies can do the same thing today to overcome the coronavirus crisis through voluntary initiatives or through the use of the Defense Production Act. Either way, strong management is essential.
By Paul R. Ignatius | Paul R. Ignatius served in the administrations of Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson in several positions, including assistant secretary of defense for installations and logistics and secretary of the Navy.
This article originally appeared on WP