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April 21, 2017
Donald Trump’s executive order on buying American and hiring American has been both ballyhooed and verbally bombarded this week. On Breaking Defense, Colin Clark provided a spirited if partisan defense of free trade, even in armaments. For Defense News, Aaron Mehta and Joe Gould took in comments from analytical luminaries Andrew Hunter (CSIS), Byron Callan (Capital Alpha), and Jeff Bialos (Eversheds Sutherland) to draw a classic conclusion: ceteris paribus, buying American could increase costs in the armaments supply chain. I must agree in this matter of static efficiency, but I have a point as well about dynamic efficiency and innovation. As befits this column, I will avoid questions of Mexican cement in Texan highways, and will instead stick to evaluating the military effects of the order. In the end, this dictum may not matter a great deal, as the military already does basically buy American, but what it will do for immigration won’t be helpful.

How common is buying foreign armaments? Hunter, speaking from the experience of working procurement issues in the Pentagon, observes that “waivers are pretty rare.” Frankly, maximizing American content has been an objective of the bureaucracy for a long time, and for at least two reasons. First, plenty of individual bureaucrats have wanted to avoid the seemingly administratively difficult, like asking for a waiver even when a waiver makes sense. In truth, waivers should be less rare. That’s because of the second reason: an institutional chauvinism, sometimes unwarranted, about the quality and suitability of American armaments.

Remember the campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq? Someone should remind the administration of where all those Predator drones came from. In the late 1980s in San Diego, an Israeli immigrant, Abe Karem, launched the company Leading Systems, to build combat drones for the American armed forces. Karem worked largely from an existing, if unrealized, Israeli design; the Israeli Air Force remains today one of world’s leading users of drones. General Atomics bought the company, and put serious money behind the effort, when neither the US Air Force nor any established American military contractor would.

We should also remind the administration of where all those MRAPs came from. In the late 1990s in Charleston, a team of South African immigrants, led by Colonel Garth Barrett and Dr. Vernon Joynt, established what came to be company Force Protection Industries (FPI), to build mine-protected vehicles. FPI worked from originally South African designs, even licensing some of the technology from the South African government. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) sponsored some rapid processing of their residency permits. In 2007, National Public Radio reported that “the Pentagon now considers him so important—indeed, a potential terrorist target—that the Department of Defense asked FPI to decline media requests to interview Joynt.”

I’ve never met Abe Karem, but I actually got that opportunity to interview Dr. Joynt, for a book I wrote in 2008. The notes were also very helpful for my dissertation, which I completed last year on the business of marketing the MRAP to the US armed forces. In the early 2000s, the main alternatives to buying from FPI in South Carolina were buying from RG vehicles from BAE Systems OMC in South Africa, Bushmasters from Thales ADI in South Australia, or Dingos from KMW in Germany. The Army did buy quite a few RGs, but only after an epic internal struggle for a host of bad reasons. Plenty of engineers and marketers in that segment of the industry confirmed for me that the foreign provenance of the concept and the design were something the procurement bureaucrats just wouldn’t warm to.

That reticence gets to a fundamental question of domesticity. There are, of course, very valid strategic reasons for the United States to retain some degree of autarky in its armaments production. But if the engineers, logisticians, marketers, and financiers are coming to the United States, to work in the United States on long-term visas, building armaments for the American military, aren’t they then Americans? Did Karem and Joynt and their retinues “take jobs” from already-Americans? Even without addressing the lump of labor fallacy, I’ll note that these people were offering to build weapons from concepts that their already-American competitors wouldn’t touch. As such, officialdom shouldn’t render even more difficult the immigration of the industrial talent and ideas that the end-customers in the US armed forces may eventually need.

James Hasik is a senior fellow at the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security.