U.S.-Made Ships Are Key To Security

Charles W. Jones, International President Emeritus

The war with Iraq was over almost before it began. There was never any doubt that the U.S. armed forces would overwhelm Saddam's army and his private guard. The U.S. military is without peer.

The only question was whether Saddam would unleash chemical or biological weapons. He didn't, and we won with relatively few U.S. casualties.

I only hope that this swift victory 6,000 miles from our shores does not make us overconfident about handling threats closer to home.

President Bush said that invading Iraq would help us combat terrorism and reduce the probability of attacks on our soil using biological, chemical, or even nuclear weapons. But Iraq is not the only source for these weapons, and it is far from the only country whose leaders or people harbor hostility — even hatred — toward the U.S.

Even if we were able to remove from power every national leader we suspect might support terrorist actions against the U.S., we would remain in danger from dozens of groups that act without explicit approval or backing from any national government.

Yet Republicans in Congress seem far more interested in what is happening 6,000 miles away than in what is happening right here at home. While they readily approved an extra $80 billion so we could fight the war in Iraq, they defeated amendments to this request increasing funding for homeland security.

One aspect of homeland security we must not overlook is the need to modernize and expand the fleets of the U.S. Coast Guard and the U.S. Navy.

About 7,500 foreign commercial ships enter 361 U.S. harbors annually, carrying six million cargo containers and 200,000 foreign mariners. In addition, we have 95,000 miles of open shoreline. Clearly, the Coast Guard's responsibilities are enormous.

It should go without saying that every mile of open shoreline and every foreign ship entering a U.S. harbor provides an opportunity for terrorists to sneak weapons or operatives into this country. Yet the Coast Guard is able to inspect only two percent of the cargo containers entering our ports, and their aging fleet limits their ability to interdict commercial ships at sea and conduct inspections far from U.S. ports.

At the same time, our U.S. Navy has been losing ships since 1987, while deployments overseas have risen 300 percent. No nation can remain a military superpower without the ability to wage war from ships.

We are fortunate that Congress has begun to take notice of these problems and made some modest increases in funding for new Coast Guard and Navy ships. But an initiative from the Department of Defense threatens to destroy any good that might come from this increased funding.

The U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) has proposed sweeping changes to the Defense Federal Acquisition Regulations (DFARS) that would allow them to circumvent the Buy American Act and purchase ships and equipment overseas.

These changes include revising the definition of U.S. manufacture to permit the DOD to buy defense systems from up to 21 different foreign countries, even if nearly 100 percent of the product is mined, produced, or manufactured in those foreign countries.

To me, that is a disturbing proposition for many reasons.

If we come to rely on foreign nations for defense systems, what happens when those nations no longer support our military efforts? What if, for example, we had been relying on France and Germany for a crucial weapons component when we invaded Iraq?

Or what if some natural or economic catastrophe were to befall the nation supplying us with a vital piece of equipment? Would we be willing to bail out foreign-based weapons suppliers — or even the foreign country's entire economy — in the same way we have bailed out U.S.-based weapons contractors in the past?

Most important, though, is the effect military spending has on the economy. Shipbuilding is an industry that stimulates the economy enormously. Every time the U.S. Navy purchases a ship made in a U.S. shipyard, it gives a significant economic boost to that shipyard's community.

For me, this is the most important consideration, especially at a time when our economy is sluggish and millions of Americans are unemployed or facing layoff. Military spending should be used to put some of those people back to work.

After all, the purpose of all military spending is to protect the American people. And that should include protecting their means of income.

If the U.S. military won't buy American-made goods, who will?