One argument put forward in favor of direct federal intervention on behalf of U.S. manufacturing is the idea that our military readiness depends on it. The effectiveness of the military improves, some say, if our reliance on foreign supply can be reduced. U.S. military leaders dispute this position.
Earlier this year the House of Representatives passed a Defense Authorization Bill that includes a “Buy America” amendment. Items bought by the Pentagon would be have to have 65 percent of their components made in the United States, as opposed to 50 percent under current law. Four years after enactment, all machine tools used in defense programs would have to be 100 percent U.S.-made. The Senate did not include a similar amendment in its own version of the bill, so these provisions may not survive the reconciliation process yet to come.
Military officials who have spoken publicly about the amendment hope the provisions do not survive. Arguments offered by the Department of Defense and military suppliers’ groups include the following:
- Costs would rise. Military hardware increasingly is not made from proprietary technology but instead uses technology developed for civilian applications. The military (hopefully) saves money by shopping around. Stricter requirements on U.S. content would reduce the freedom to find these savings.
- Costs would rise even more as military suppliers either reinvent their shops to comply with the U.S.-made machine tool requirement, or else limit their capacity for military work based on the number of U.S. machines on hand. Costs would be passed along to the government either way.
- Quality would go down. For some components, U.S. manufacturers are not the most capable producers. And some important components are not made in the United States at all, such as flat computer panels used in military aircraft.
The two sides in this debate are motivated by two different visions of how best to serve America’s interests.
Both sides would agree, and indeed almost any American would agree, that the ideal case would be for the highest quality and most economical component to be offered by a U.S. supplier using U.S.-made equipment.
But what happens when that’s not the case? The question then is whether to impose arbitrary limits, or whether American taxpayers and American service personnel should have access to the broadest range of options the market has available.