- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 19, 2004

During World War Two, America’s industrial might was focused like a laser on defeating the Axis forces in all corners of the world. We mobilized our nation in a way the modern world had never before seen. It wasn’t just words; it was action with a capital “A.”

Virtually every major manufacturing plant — from the giants of Detroit building automobiles to the Kodak plant in upstate New York making Brownie cameras — retooled and turned their resources and energies to manufacturing items needed by our armed forces. Detroit shifted from passenger cars to jeeps and tanks; Kodak moved from snapshot cameras to bomb sights; the country’s firearms manufacturers quickly shifted from sporting and hunting rifles, to producing the best military handguns and rifles in the world and in quantities that astounded our enemies. America’s domestic industrial might made the difference between prolonged war and victory.

The lesson then was clear — produce or perish. It was a lesson remembered even as late as the Vietnam War. America failed to win in Vietnam because we lacked the will to win, not because we lacked the means to win. Throughout the 1960s and the first half of the 1970s, America produced more than sufficient armaments, military equipment, ammunition, and spare parts to meet the needs of our military. All that came to a screeching halt with the election of Jimmy Carter in 1976.

Within months of Jimmy Carter taking the oath of office in January 1977, “disarmament” and “down-sizing” became the orders of the day. By the middle of his administration, President Carter had reduced the U.S. military to a shell of its former self; the “hollow military” had arrived.

President Reagan, realizing what Mr. Carter never did, reversed the downward slide of America’s military, and quickly began a rebuilding campaign that continued throughout his eight years in office. America’s prestige was restored, and our ability to project American interests to the farthest corners of the world was unquestioned. Just ask the leaders of the former Soviet Union.

Even though both Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan served honorably in our nation’s military, Mr. Reagan instinctively understood what his predecessor failed to grasp: Military strength cannot be turned on and off like a light switch. You cannot slow or stop production of materiel or manpower, to save money or political capital in the short run, and then flip a switch and everything is back on line when politics or the economy make it convenient to do so, or a crisis suddenly rears its ugly head. Just as foreign intelligence assets lost may take years, if not decades to rebuild, so too military production lines stopped to save a buck, require a long lead time to restart; often requiring complete retooling because of technological advances in the interim.

Unfortunately, as a result largely of the misunderstanding of this basic principle during the Clinton years, and due to irresponsible overuse of our military during that same period (recall the costly bombings of the aspirin factory in Somalia and of the vacant terrorist training camps in Afghanistan), the current administration of George W. Bush inherited a military if not in as bad condition as that passed on to Mr. Reagan by Mr. Carter, pretty close to it.

I recall that, during a visit to the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt in 2001, I was shocked to learn that munitions stocks aboard the massive ship were so low, that only a single missile was available for a crucial training exercise. I was astounded to learn also that before the ship reached its deployed station in the Mediterranean, it had to meet the carrier it was replacing, and have that ship’s munitions transferred to the Roosevelt.

America’s reliance (some say, overreliance) on expensive and hard-to-produce weaponry, such as so-called “smart bombs,” means we had better have sufficient stocks of such materiel to meet all reasonably foreseeable contingencies. It’s frequently worse to become involved in a military situation and then discover you don’t have sufficient resources to continue, that to not become involved in the first place. And, taking resources from one theater of operations (the Pacific Rim, for example) to fill gaps in another region (Iraq, for example) is a potentially disastrous gamble. We got by this time OK; next time we may not be so fortunate.

All this is why the stories now surfacing about shortfalls in small ammunition stocks, is so troubling. Have we still failed to learn the lessons of the past? Are we still pursuing policies that are penny-wise and pound-foolish? Why, for example, would we ever let ourselves fall into the situation in which we now find ourselves, with only a single domestic manufacturer of small-caliber military ammunition? Why would we knowingly place ourselves in a situation so dangerous we now have to actually purchase small caliber ammunition from foreign countries? Even if those foreign suppliers are among our strongest allies (Israel), sound national security policy should never lose sight of the fact that, when the chips are down, there is only one country whose interests will always coincide 100 percent with America’s, and which will always put America’s military orders at the top of the list. That country is bounded by Canada on the north, Mexico to the south, and two oceans on the east and west. We forget that at our own peril.

Bob Barr, a former Republican member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Georgia, is a columnist for United Press International.

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