Looking Abroad

/ March 6, 2009 at 5:00 AM

Jacques Gansler, who was under secretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics in the Clinton Pentagon, has penned a new piece for Foreign Policy on the United States' reliance on other countries in military areas -- including the use of weapon system components made in other countries.

Since U.S. President Barack Obama has taken office, the debate between economic protectionism and free trade has reemerged with a vengeance. Just this week, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown dinged the new president's allies in Congress for inserting a controversial "Buy American" provision in the stimulus bill passed in February.

The most important strategic decisions over trade that Obama will face will not be about French cheese or the Chinese yuan, however, but over the dozens of countries around the world that, during the past few decades, have become critical in supplying the U.S. military with the latest technologies and best equipment. These foreign suppliers are significant, and increasingly vital, contributors to America's military superiority.

Gansler goes on to single out the Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles program as well as the Medium Extended Air Defense System as examples of programs dependent on components made elsewhere. "Even Obama's new helicopter," he writes, "will be based on an Italian design and partially produced in Britain." (Maybe not, but you get his point.)

Not everyone is a fan:

Of course, critics argue that these arrangements are incredibly dangerous. After all, couldn't the U.S. weapons supply be cut off during wartime if the country were too reliant on foreign parts? Most of these foreign sources, however, are from NATO nations or other countries with which the United States has had enduring military and commercial relationships. For example, despite very public opposition in some of these countries to U.S. actions in Afghanistan or Iraq, at no time did foreign suppliers (including 20 German and two French suppliers) restrict the provision or sale of components.

Skeptics also worry about "Trojan horses" built into foreign-supplied systems, particularly in the case of software. But this potential threat can be addressed through extensive and rigorous testing and reverse engineering, just as occurs in the financial and medical communities. Still others raise serious and legitimate concerns about military technology leaking into the hands of rogue regimes or terrorists or being sold to third parties without U.S. knowledge. These are certainly excellent arguments for international arms-control treaties. But there's no reason why such treaties need preclude legal arms trade among allies, along with mutually agreed-to verification techniques.

More commonly, opponents emphasize the potential loss of jobs that might occur as a result of buying equipment from offshore firms.

Gansler, though, sees no way around it. "The United States must face the fact that it no longer has a monopoly on the world's best military technology," he concludes. "America's path toward future stability involves cooperating with allies and taking advantage of the best they have to offer, not cutting itself off and watching as its military superiority slips away."

-- Dan Dupont

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