House bill would be a step backward for military electronics

Members of the electronics industry are lining up to oppose a new "Buy American" bill pending in the U.S. House of Representatives

Jul 1st, 2002

by John Keller, Chief Editor Military & Aerospace Electronics

Members of the electronics industry are lining up to oppose a new "Buy American" bill pending in the U.S. House of Representatives; they are opposing this legislation for good reason.

The bill, HR 3597, would prohibit the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) from buying any equipment that contains electronic components built outside the United States. The bill, if enacted, not only would cut U.S. military systems off from a rich supply of capable and affordable electronic technology, but also would threaten to stifle the kind of competition that helps create the kinds of advanced and inexpensive technology available today.

The bill has the misnomer of the "Keep America Secure Act." Introducing this legislation last Dec. 20 were four House Democrats; Louise McIntosh Slaughter, who represents a district in Western New York that includes Rochester, is the sponsor. Co-sponsors are Democrat Reps. Peter DeFazio or Oregon, Maurice Hinchey of New York, and Dennis Kuchinich of Ohio.

HR 3597 would prohibit the Secretary of Defense from purchasing equipment containing electronic components that are not manufactured in the United States. The secretary, however, could waive the prohibition if buying American would be inconsistent with the public interest or would result in unreasonable costs to the DOD. The bill says electronic components include any integrated chip or sensing device; communications systems and equipment; search, navigation, and guidance systems and equipment; and software associated with this equipment. The full text of the bill, which is only two pages long, is available on the World Wide Web at http://thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/z?c 107: H.R.3597:

Since its introduction the bill has been referred to the House Armed Services Committee, with no imminent signs of action, committee staffers say. After HR 3597 was referred to them, members of the House Armed Services Committee asked top DOD leaders for their opinion of the bill, and the DOD's official response was pending at presstime.

There is a chance, certainly, that this bill may never see the light of day. It may simply die in committee if the House Armed Services leadership chooses not to schedule hearings and bring the bill up for a vote. So too, the bill might be defeated in committee if it ever were to advance that far. Curiously, not one of the bill's sponsors serves on either the House Armed Services Committee or the House Appropriations subcommittee on Defense — the two House groups with the most influence on U.S. military matters.

I wouldn't count on an easy death for HR 3597. There are a lot of politics involved that strike a chord in some quarters, especially after Sept. 11.

Congresswoman Slaughter, its sponsor, raises some points that, at least in theory, appear to be solid. She doesn't like it that some crucial electronic components in important American weapon systems come from outside the U.S. "During the Gulf War, the United States was forced to purchase essential parts for the Patriot Missile from Japan on three separate occasions," she claims by way of example. "I am disturbed that some of our military hardware is dependent on electronics produced by corporations or operations based in other countries, since there is nothing to stop these firms from moving production to another, less friendly country."

I see her point; I don't much like it either that electronic parts in front-line military platforms sometimes come from overseas. But this is the way that defense companies and their suppliers do business today. The DOD has to make the taxpayers' money go as far as possible, and that means finding the strongest capability at the fairest price. U.S.-based suppliers can't always do that. Certainly they can't supply every electronic component necessary to build sophisticated weapons, sensors, and communications devices.

U.S. electronics companies are not, and have not been for many years, structured to support 100 percent of the military's needs. If Congresswoman Slaughter's proposals were to become law, at least two things would happen. First, military systems would cost a lot more than they do today, and second, military systems would not be as capable or maintainable as they are today. Much of the technology necessary would simply become unavailable.

Sharing these concerns are prominent members of the U.S. electronics industry.

"This legislation would severely limit the Department of Defense's ability to procure and maintain current and future weapon systems," wrote the leaders of two groups within the Electronic Industries Alliance in Arlington, Va., May 31 to U.S. Rep. Bob Stump, R-Calif., who chairs the House Armed Services Committee. "HR 3597 threatens DOD's ability to support the majority of weapons systems in use today and would encumber future systems with exorbitant costs."

Signing this letter were Dan C. Heinemeier, president of the Government Electronics & Information Technology Association (GEIA) of the EIA, as well as John J. Kelly, president of the EIA's Joint Electronic Devices Engineering Council — better known as JEDEC.

"The impact of this bill bears little relation to its title or its purported intent," Heinemeier and Kelly wrote. "In addition to prohibiting the use of components manufactured by foreign companies, this ban would also disallow the use of components produced by those U.S.-based companies with manufacturing facilities in foreign countries, including some that are DOD certified."

The letter points out the bill's waiver provision, yet says the waiver process "would result in a bureaucratic nightmare created by a continuous flow of waiver requests in order to proceed with procurements for any electronic equipment."

A few decades ago, the military was the biggest market for the electronics business, so industry followed the military's lead. That's not the case anymore. The electronics industry has evolved such that it is a global enterprise now, and its leaders follow the money. That's how they keep themselves in business and stay on the leading edge of technology. For good or ill, the military doesn't call the shots anymore. Congress should acknowledge that, and quit meddling in the minutiae of the DOD's procurement process. U.S. lawmakers would be well advised to reject the provision of HR 3597 and allow the DOD to outfit military systems in ways that make the best sense.

If you would like to contact your congressional representative to urge a no vote on HR 3597, information is available on the World Wide Web at http://clerk.house.gov/members/index.ph.

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