An F-35B Lightning II assigned to the F-35 Integrated Test Force at Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Md., lands aboard the Royal Navy aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth.

An F-35B Lightning II assigned to the F-35 Integrated Test Force at Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Md., lands aboard the Royal Navy aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth. U.S. Navy photo courtesy of the Royal Navy

Defense Experts Throw Warning Flags As Congress Mulls Tighter Buy-American Rules

The House NDAA would require major defense programs to be all-American by 2026.

As Congress mulls stricter buy-American rules for Pentagon purchases, European and some former defense officials in the United States are pushing back, arguing that America’s national security would be better served by deepening industrial cooperation with its closest allies.

The House has approved provisions in its version of the 2021 National Defense Authorization Act that would require 100 percent American-made parts in major acquisition programs by 2026. Similar legislation has been introduced in the Senate.

Mackenzie Eaglen of the American Enterprise Institute said that’s unrealistic. “Almost nothing purely — with every part and component — isn't made in one country ever,” Eaglen said.

Andrew Hunter, a former Pentagon acquisition official who now runs the Defense-Industrial Initiatives Group at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, concurred with Eaglen.

“Some of the proposals that are right now moving in the NDAA would be, I think, a real barrier to that kind of necessary cooperation for U.S. national security,” Hunter said Tuesday at the virtual COMDEF conference.“I think overall, we sometimes bash a little too hard on the Buy America Act, because when you actually go into the provisions of the Buy America Act, there is flexibility there.” 

Lawmakers are reacting, in part, to the way the coronavirus pandemic put a spotlight on just how much the Pentagon relies on globally sourced materials in its weapons. Earlier this year, U.S. manufacturers were unable to get aircraft parts from virus-shuttered factories in Mexico.

Over the past year, the United States has struggled to remove Turkish suppliers from the F-35 fighter program. U.S. officials had hoped to shift production to other suppliers by March, but will now continue accepting Turkish-made parts through 2022.

Allies have been pushing the Pentagon to buy more gear from their own companies — but the Trump administration has also been on an intensive drive to promote U.S. defense exports.

Foreign sales account for about one-quarter of annual revenue among the top American defense companies.

The U.K. plans to spend $32 billion on U.S.-made weapons over the next decade, said Edward Ferguson, the minister counsellor for defence at the British Embassy. That work supports 160,000 American jobs. And British companies based in the U.S. — like BAE systems, Rolls-Royce and Martin Baker — employ 56,000 people.

“The integration of our supply base is extraordinarily deep,” Ferguson said. “That's really important, both because it gives us that interoperability in the theater when we need it, but also because it allows us to share the costs and to draw on each other's innovation.”

European companies build critical components for the F-35 Lightning II, a fighter jet flown by the U.S. and numerous allies.

“We’ve managed to do these things, because we share and I think the danger with some of this Buy America direction is that it starts to undermine that principle, or serve to push culture in the wrong way,” Ferguson said. “I think the challenge ... is finding the right balance between on the one hand making sure that we are able to protect our technology, and we are able to shore up our national security industrial base, but on the other hand, we remain open enough to allow ourselves to collaborate and draw on technologies from each other.”

Hunter, who ran the Pentagon’s Joint Rapid Acquisition Cell during the Obama administration , said the U.S. would not have been able to fast-track weapons and equipment to troops on the front lines in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past decade without global suppliers.

Companies used steel from Mexico and Canada to build bomb-resistant MRAP troop transports because the U.S. steel stockpile was not large enough, Hunter said.

“We didn't have sufficient capacity within the United States,” he said. 

The Pentagon relied on the U.K. for ballistic protection equipment and Norway for communications equipment and air defenses, Hunter said.

Ferguson called for building a “trusted community” so allies could quickly share technology data and intellectual property.

“We all need to review our supply chain saying, in the wake of COVID … to see where we might be exposed and over reliant on untrustworthy sources of supply,” he said. “But that doesn't mean throwing the baby out with the bathwater and putting up a drawbridge and saying, well, we're not gonna work with anyone.”

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