When ‘Buy American’ and common sense collide

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The Pentagon is shown in this Dec. 5, 2017, file photo.

One has to wonder whether America has lost its strategic sense entirely — or for that matter, its common sense. On the one hand, the Department of Defense has released its latest evaluation of the Chinese military threat, noting specifically that Beijing is moving from what it terms in Pentagon-ese “informationalized warfare” to “intelligentized warfare.” On the other hand, the House of Representatives has approved an amendment to its 2021 National Defense Authorization Act that would expand the “Buy American” provision so that it could lock out defense exports from America’s closest allies, whom it sorely needs in any confrontation with China or Russia.

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith  (D-Wash.), ranking member Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas), and even the Trump White House all opposed the amendment. No matter. The House voted to accept the proposal by Rep. Donald Norcross (D-N.J.) requiring that, by the end of fiscal year 2021, 75 percent of all components of major defense programs must be produced in the United States, and that the American share of those components should rise by 5 percent in every year following year until it reaches 100 percent in FY 2026. The House also approved other Buy American provisions to both its defense authorization and appropriation bills.

If the House-passed legislation becomes law, why America’s allies should be expected to meet their financial obligations to NATO or to increase their contributions to the cost of maintaining American forces on their territories defies rational explanation. It therefore should come as no surprise that the  25-member Defense Memorandum of Understanding Attaches Group (DMAG), representing most of America’s closest allies, wrote to Sens. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and Jack Reed (D-R.I.), the committee’s ranking member, urging them to reject the Buy American provisions during the conference committee negotiations on the bill’s final text. 

The DMAG letter pointed out that the United States already has a massive surplus in defense trade with its allies — it amounted to nearly $90 billion in 2018. It also noted that the proposed legislation “will greatly impair the reciprocal defense procurement agreements … that the United States has with numerous allies and partners.” It might have argued equally that such legislation would only lead Europeans, in particular, to increase purchases from their own industrial base, probably at the expense of many American defense products that they otherwise would have acquired.

The legislation actually is full of loopholes. In particular, it grants the Secretary of Defense authority to waive its provisions. It excludes trade agreements already in place. It permits acquisition of components and systems that are not domestically available — hardly a concession if America has nowhere else to go to buy what the military needs. Still, if these loopholes effectively vitiate the legislation, why pass it at all? Moreover, as the DMAG letter clearly indicates, allies are not about to rely on loopholes in order to preserve what is already their weak trading position. 

The supposed logic behind these amendments is that they will prevent the offshoring of jobs to other nations. Concerns about offshoring compound the longtime ill effects of the “not invented here” syndrome, which assumes that allied nations are so far behind America technologically that they have little, if anything, to offer its military. That is simply not the case, but it prevents the synergies that could be realized if Washington and its key partners worked together on the technologies that the Pentagon warns will enable China to “intelligentize” its military prowess.

Artificial intelligence is one such technology that cries out for inter-allied cooperation. A recent  

Air Force exercise demonstrated the power of AI in graphic detail. It pitted an AI algorithm in a dogfight against a live pilot in an F-16 fighter. The algorithm won. If America truly is to outpace China in developing AI and other advanced technologies for the battlefield, it is imperative to draw upon all available brainpower, whether it resides in America or among its allies. And if some degree of offshoring is the cost of assuring that cooperation, it is a price well worth paying. 

Dov S. Zakheim is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and vice chairman of the board for the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He was under secretary of Defense (comptroller) and chief financial officer for the Department of Defense from 2001 to 2004 and a deputy under secretary of Defense from 1985 to 1987.

Tags Adam Smith Buy American China Department of Defense Donald Norcross Jack Reed James Inhofe Mac Thornberry National Defense Authorization Act Russia

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