In their zeal for glamorous high-technology weapons, have the Pentagon's generals overlooked the mundane basics of warfare? Critics in the nation's munitions industry complain that this is what has happened during the Reagan administration's trillion-dollar defense buildup.
Recognizing the difficulty of evoking sympathy for munitions makers, critics focus on the damage being done to U.S. security. The Army has enough ammo on hand for only 45 days of conventional hostilities, industry spokesmen told our reporter Gary Clouser. They say it would take longer than that to create the production "surge" necessary to fill wartime requirements.
For example, in fiscal 1985 the Army bought 115,000 combat rounds for its 105-millimeter cannons, the basic tank shell -- but only 41,000 rounds in fiscal 1987. The Israelis fired more than 20,000 rounds per day during their 17-day conflict on the Golan Heights in 1967.
Because of overpricing scandals involving a few defense contractors, munitions industry spokesmen say, the Pentagon has made price its primary consideration, giving little if any weight to contractors' past performance and the impact of procurement policies on mobilization.
The munitions makers also raise concerns about the Defense Department's reliance on foreign suppliers. Industry critics point out that this supply of materiel could be cut off anytime the United States embarks on a military operation that allied governments do not want to get involved in. They also claim that foreign suppliers are more vulnerable to terrorist or other attacks.
The major munitions makers also criticize the proportion of defense contracts that by law is set aside for small businesses, claiming that these competitors are simply going after Pentagon business as a means to endure current economic problems. They also complain about competition from government-owned munitions plants.
There is little doubt that the major contractors are undergoing hard times themselves. In fact, Ken Bernhardt, president of General Defense Corp.'s ordnance division in Red Lion, Pa., says the munitions industry is in its worst shape in 30 years. And he expects the situation to grow worse -- no matter who becomes the next president.
While the Army's total procurement budget rose from $18.6 billion in fiscal 1985 to $20.9 billion for fiscal 1988, the amount budgeted for ammunition fell from $2.5 billion to $2.4 billion. At the same time, the munitions makers have been hurt by the drastic drop in U.S. military sales overseas -- from $14.8 billion in 1980 to $7.1 billion last year.
Industry spokesmen say it is becoming increasingly difficult for the munitions makers to provide the Army with a "mobilization base" for the various items of ordnance that would be needed if war breaks out. While they have essentially only one customer -- the government -- their engineers and production workers can find jobs elsewhere. As production lines close down, these skilled workers are doing just that, which could leave the industry unable to handle the Army's demands in a crisis.
House and Senate committees concerned with military preparedness are studying the problem of preserving an adequate industrial base for defense.