AMERICAS automobile industry is in desperate trouble. We must act: aiding the American automobile industry is not only an economic imperative, but also a national security imperative.
By Wesley K. Clark (Ret.)
AMERICA’S automobile industry is in desperate trouble. Financial instability, the credit squeeze and closed capital markets are hurting domestic automakers, while decades of competition from foreign producers have eroded market share and consumer loyalty. Some economists question the wisdom of Washington’s intervening to help the Big Three, arguing that the automakers should pay the price for their own mistakes or that the market will correct itself. But we must act: aiding the American automobile industry is not only an economic imperative, but also a national security imperative.
When President Dwight Eisenhower observed that America’s greatest strength wasn’t its military, but its economy, he must have had companies like General Motors and Ford in mind. Sitting atop a vast pyramid of tool makers, steel producers, fabricators and component manufacturers, these companies not only produced the tanks and trucks that helped win World War II, but also lent their technology to aircraft and ship manufacturing. The United States truly became the arsenal of democracy.
During the 1950s, advances in aviation, missiles, satellites and electronics made Detroit seem a little old-fashioned in dealing with the threat of the Soviet Union. The Army’s requests for new trucks and other basic transportation usually came out a loser in budget battles against missile technology and new modifications for the latest supersonic jet fighter. Not only were airplanes far sexier but they also counted as part of our military “tooth,” while much of the land forces’ needs were “tail.” And in those days, “more teeth, less tail” had become a key concept in military spending.
But in 1991, the Persian Gulf war demonstrated the awesome utility of American land power, and the Humvee (and its civilian version, the Hummer) became a star. Likewise, the ubiquitous homemade bombs of the current Iraq insurgency have led to the development of innovative armor-protected wheeled vehicles for American forces, as well as improvements in our fleets of Humvees, tanks, armored fighting vehicles, trucks and cargo carriers.
In a little more than a year, the Army has procured and fielded in Iraq more than a thousand so-called mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicles. The lives of hundreds of soldiers and marines have been saved, and their tasks made more achievable, by the efforts of the American automotive industry. And unlike in World War II, America didn’t have to divert much civilian capacity to meet these military needs. Without a vigorous automotive sector, those needs could not have been quickly met.
More challenges lie ahead for our military, and to meet them we need a strong industrial base. For years the military has sought better sources of electric power in its vehicles — necessary to allow troops to monitor their radios with diesel engines off, to support increasingly high-powered communications technology, and eventually to support electric propulsion and innovative armaments like directed-energy weapons. In sum, this greater use of electricity will increase combat power while reducing our footprint. Much research and development spending has gone into these programs over the years, but nothing on the manufacturing scale we really need.
Now, though, as Detroit moves to plug-in hybrids and electric-drive technology, the scale problem can be remedied. Automakers are developing innovative electric motors, many with permanent magnet technology, that will have immediate military use. And only the auto industry, with its vast purchasing power, is able to establish a domestic advanced battery industry. Likewise, domestic fuel cell production — which will undoubtedly have many critical military applications — depends on a vibrant car industry.
To be sure, the public should demand transformation and new standards in the auto industry before paying to keep it alive. And we should insist that Detroit’s goals include putting America in first place in hybrid and electric automotive technology, reducing the emissions of the country’s transportation fleet, and strengthening our competitiveness abroad.
This should be no giveaway. Instead, it is a historic opportunity to get it right in Detroit for the good of the country. But Americans must bear in mind that any federal assistance plan would not be just an economic measure. This is, fundamentally, about national security.
Wesley K. Clark, a retired Army general and former supreme allied commander of NATO, is a senior fellow at the Burkle Center for International Relations at the University of California at Los Angeles.
Published: Sunday, November 16, 2008