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Guarding "Buy America" defense manufacturing

By Paul M. Weyrich
web pposted October 27, 2003

Great Britain once prided itself on being the "workshop of the world."

During Operation Iraqi Freedom the British Army found itself at the mercy of the Swiss Government, which stopped a shipment of 25,000 grenades from a manufacturer, RUAG Munitions, based on their differences with the invasion. British troops were forced to fight under-equipped.

One British military analyst argued the British Government was foolish to depend on a manufacturer whose government was outspoken in its opposition to the Iraqi War.

Should the United States feel confident that, unlike the British, we could avoid a similar mistake?

Well, it happened to us, too. The Swiss manufacture components essential to our smart bombs, the global positioning system-guided Joint Direct Attack Munitions. They too stopped an order. Fortunately, a U.S. manufacturer was able to supply the crystal.

Next time we may not be so fortunate. Siva Sivananthan, president of EPIR Technologies and director of the Microphysics Laboratory at the University of Illinois at Chicago, told Manufacturing & Technology News that our country is in serious danger of soon losing our edge in the infrared vision technology that provides our troops with an advantage in night fighting.

"Funding decisions by our government have resulted in increased and now total reliance on foreign suppliers for these high-end infrared materials, making us hostage to the current political and business climates of foreign countries beyond our control," Sivanathan cautioned.

The United States has only one machine tool manufacturer, Cincinnati Incorporated, left on our shores, which means that critical parts our armed forces will need in times of conflict could be made unavailable due to our dependence on foreign governments that either frown upon our efforts or are just downright unfriendly. Another company, Ingersoll, declared bankruptcy in the spring and part of its operations are now owned by the Chinese firm Dalian.

That leaves our country more dependent in a pinch than we should be on countries such as Germany and China. The former is usually considered to be an ally, but the statements made -- before the Iraqi War commenced -- by Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and the country's sizable left-wing element indicate that their country's support cannot be taken for granted. As for China, a recent Pentagon report stated that Chinese military exercises "increasingly focus on the United States as an adversary."

Titanium is a mineral essential to our country's national security. It is essential to the manufacture of airplanes and other major weapons systems. The United States has only three small manufacturers, and we may very well find ourselves reliant on Russia, the world's largest producer, with its political uncertainty.

Other manufacturing is being transferred to the Pacific Rim countries, including those that are grappling with Islamic terrorism, another significant concern. Not only that, the risk of sabotage is greatly increased as critical information and plans about U.S. weapons systems are provided out of necessity to overseas contractors.

Fortunately, Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-CA), the Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, is someone who does recognize the problem and is working to increase our industrial preparedness.

Hunter appeared with Lou Dobbs on CNN's Moneyline in late July to warn: "If you rely on a foreign source that's not reliable, it may end up causing you deaths on a battlefield."

The House passed H.R. 1588, the National Defense Authorization Act, considered to be a "Buy America" proposal that would require the armed forces to purchase a certain amount of U.S. goods. Critics argued that it left our country hostage to buying goods because they are produced in our country, not because they are of quality.

A compromise negotiated between Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz and Hunter places greater emphasis on having the Department of Defense make a critical assessment of our industrial sector's ability to meet our needs in terms of essential military weapons and equipment; in particular, identifying those areas in which the United States is overly dependent on foreign suppliers. The report would also assess what we can do to strengthen industries deemed vital to our national defense.

Hunter has been agreeable to reasonable compromises, withdrawing language from the original bill that would have required the content of military equipment to be at least 65% of domestic components (up from the current 50% requirement.) He also changed the wording of the bill to avoid saddling U.S. manufacturers with the burdensome requirement of itemizing what parts of their equipment are composed of foreign and domestic parts. Now, the Pentagon will undertake that task based on existing information. Those countries whose companies are already manufacturing items under previous agreements would not have their current contacts threatened. By agreeing to these revisions, he was able to secure the support of Mr. Wolfowitz.

That said, "Buy America" must still overcome the opposition of substantial lobbies and powerful government officials to become law. It is of no real help to the large defense manufacturers, many of which have a vested interest in opposing such legislation because they can outsource to foreign companies more cheaply. Nor do the trade promoters within the Federal Government look kindly on the legislation.

Senator John Warner (R-VA) has not been the gung-ho advocate of "Buy America" that Hunter has been. In fact, the Senate's 2004 Defense Authorization bill had made it easier for defense contractors to avoid buying American, undermining existing agreements. Now the issue must be
resolved in conference.

Critics will take the easy route of calling this protectionism, viewing it to be a politically motivated exercise. That is an easy charge to make, but the importance of this policy extends well beyond good politics. It is a common-sense measure to assure that our troops have a reliable source of supplies and critical equipment. There is no doubt that Americans have the ingenuity to design and manufacture the advanced equipment needed to fight modern wars. We have proven that time and again. But that edge will matter little unless we can guarantee that our troops have the equipment in hand.

We have been very fortunate that our troops were able to perform so capably in the armed operations against Afghanistan and Iraq, incurring maximum success with minimal casualties. That may not be the case in future conflicts, particularly if we have to confront a foe like China whose superpower status would make it a much more formidable foe. If our troops do not have the best equipment on hand, the result may be unthinkable. To avoid such worrisome scenarios becoming reality, our nation's leaders and our defense establishment need to recognize that keeping a significant portion of defense manufacturing in the United States - not contracted or subcontracted out of the country - is sound and farsighted policy. It's more than American jobs at stake, it is the success and lives of the members of our armed forces.

Paul M. Weyrich is Chairman and CEO of the Free Congress Foundation.

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