For decades, it was axiomatic that the U.S. defense contractors built military equipment for the U.S. military here in the U.S. From ships and submarines to tanks and satellites, building for our military created high-paying and often union jobs for families and kept innovation and technology here.
That was then. This is now.
Today, the common sense arguments to protect the domestic defense industry have given way to free traders who argue it’s a boon for the American taxpayer to have our military purchase cheap gear from off shore. When news broke last year that Huntington-Ingalls Industries was looking abroad to build a drydock for U.S. Navy ships, some in DC defended the decision, saying “I don’t see how buying a drydock – not exactly sensitive technology – from them is any different than buying a bazillion iPhones and TVs.”
But tanks and ships are not telephones or televisions: they are a matter of national security.
Current events have underscored that factories abroad are not immune from the influence of their own governments who might have an interest in sending defective military components to the U.S. In fact, the concern has led the U.S. Military to not use Chinese microelectronics in military gear for fear that malware embedded in the chips could cause jets or missiles to fail. And deep trade ties do not mean that our interests are mutual. The U.S. Senate concluded that the Chinese government – one of our largest trading partners – was behind cyberattacks in the U.S.
But the concerns don’t stop there. Outsourcing our defense industry also can mean we get “[p]oor manufacturing practices in offshore factories that produce problem-plagued products,” notes a 2013 study called “Remaking American Security.” Reliable shipping? That can depend on weather, war and piracy, all real impediments to timely delivery of goods.
And then there’s the jobs. Historically, jobs building military equipment have been high-paying and often union jobs, the kind that build the middle class. These days, it’s not always Congress that is fighting to keep the jobs here, but the union worker. UAW members at the Joint Systems Manufacturing Center in Lima, OH assemble and modernize tanks and armored vehicles.
The facility, owned by the U.S. government and operated by General Dynamics, is the only tank manufacturing plant left in the United States. Military budget cuts have hit the plant hard over the years. Working with local officials, UAW members helped form Task Force Lima, which has successfully fought for years to win new investment in the plant. The group has been successful.
There are no quick fixes to this problem. If the most valued metric is achieving the lowest price, then anything that involves human labor will always find U.S. workers falling behind. Changing this starts with policy makers agreeing that it’s a matter of national security to build up our military manufacturing capacity. It means supporting bills that strengthen Buy American provisions. It means supporting organizing so workers themselves can effectively advocate to build the industrial base.