Congress should be removing barriers to innovation, not erecting barriers to competition.


Today in Wales, the 2014 NATO Summit gets underway, dominated by discussions of wars in Ukraine, Iraq, and Syria. But this afternoon back in Virginia, as Politico Morning Defense reports, several congressmen are meeting with officials at the Pentagon to talk about something more important to them: running shoes. Led by Representative Niki Tsongas of Massachusetts, they’ll be complaining that the Defense Department shouldn’t be allowing troops to choose their own athletic shoes on a government allowance, but should instead be requiring them to wear shoes made in the United States. 

Actually, no—such a mandate doesn’t make sense. First, observe that American troops generally do not fight in athletic shoes. They fight in combat boots. Fighting in athletic shoes is what ISIS gunmen do. American troops do their physical training in athletic shoes. Then, if the troops are undertaking this training to subsequently “fight for this country”, admit that what they wear for training really should be up to them. Anyone knowledgeable about footwear will tell you what’s suitable for any one person’s foot is an individual matter. Even New Balance sources most of its shoes overseas, so a mandate for US shoes now would restrict troops to just three models: NB’s 574s, 990s, or 993s. Mandating such narrow choices, when many competent sources are available, will just lead to injuries.
It’s notable that immediately after the story in Morning Defense, a two-line advertisement from European missile-maker MBDA starts with “the 2014 NATO Summit will highlight the importance of international collaboration and leveraging allied technology…” Indeed, on his way to Wales, Defense Secretary Hagel stopped in Rhode Island to make a speech at the Defense Innovation Days conference about the importance of new ideas in the department’s future plans. Those plans will increasingly depend on overseas sources of innovation. As the National Research Council starts its recent 145-page report for the Pentagon on Strategic Engagement in Global Science & Technology, “the US currently accounts for less than one-third of global research and development spending,” and that fraction will continue to drop as the rest of the world’s economy catches up. So, to redress Defense’s historical resistance to not-invented-here, Pentagon R&D chief Al Shaffer recently articulated a new “International S&T Engagement Strategy”. Perhaps it’s all talk so far, but at least it’s a start.
Of late, the Pentagon has also been lamenting the lack of competition for its contracts. Here again, part of the problem is an institutional disinterest in overseas sources of supply, backed by annoying regulations mandated domestic content. In a story on Inside Defense yesterday (“Analysts: New DOD Memo Addressing Competition Is Missing The Mark”), Ben FitzGerald of the Center for a New American Security noted that the latest directive on competition to the procurement staff from Under Secretary Frank Kendall “is a positive step” but rather doesn’t “address things like ability to source from international providers”. Even if the US accounts for nearly 40 percent of global military spending, industry outside the United States has more untapped potential for the Pentagon than industry inside the United States.
To return to the particular case, the Pentagon might consider diverting some of its massive investments into apparel and footwear research. Troops in the field could always use uniforms that are more durable, more resistant to heat, easier to keep clean, less prone to chaffing, and that just plain fit better. But much of the industry that works on those issues lies outside the United States, so judicious enforcement of protectionist legislation like the Berry Amendment would prevent its participation.
Shoes are just emblematic of the problem, an obsession with what former Defense Secretary Robert Gates called, in his ‘Memoirs of a Secretary at War’, a congressman’s “wallet list” (p. 89). That’s the collection of pet projects that always seem more important than the actual welfare and the troops, or the innovative capacity of the industry supporting them. Some domestic sourcing requirements have a strategic rationale. This one does not. The Congress should have better things to do than pester the Pentagon about footwear or any other picayune concern. There’s a war on, after all.
James Hasik is a senior fellow at the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security.