Japanese firms reportedly withheld key parts of U.S. gulf-war weapons

April 30, 1991|By John Eckhouse | John Eckhouse,San Francisco Chronicle

The U.S. military faced a supply crisis just before the gulf war because several Japanese electronics companies refused to provide American defense contractors with rush orders of key components, according to an article scheduled for publication in an international trade newsletter.

Quoting a high-ranking but unidentified Bush administration source, the Santa Rosa, Calif.-based SAM Trade newsletter will report next month that the U.S. government "had to jump through hoops" to secure critical supplies of Japanese high-tech components used in a variety of weapons systems.

The Japanese electronics companies -- whose identities have not been publicly disclosed -- reportedly said they could not curtail existing commercial contracts, such as orders from VCR, television and automobile manufacturers, to meet the needs of the U.S. forces in the gulf.

Experts on Japan say the companies may have been afraid of domestic political ramifications of favoring military over commercial customers.

Several authorities on military and Japanese matters said in interviews yesterday that they were aware of the supply crisis.

"I understand that it required extraordinary action, and our government had to go hat in hand to the Japanese Embassy in order to get certain things supplied," said Richard Van Atta, director for technology policy at the Institute for Defense Analyses, an Alexandria, Va., think tank.

The episode highlights the growing problem of U.S. dependency on offshore sources for vital supplies.

"We should not blame the Japanese -- we've had years of warnings about this and we didn't pay attention," said Stas Margaronis, editor of SAM Trade.

"We figured it didn't make a difference who made a commercial component -- but it did."

Mr. Margaronis does not plan to publish the name of the administration official who gave him the information. However, the San Francisco Chronicle was able to reach the official, who agreed to talk about the incident as long as he was not identified.

He confirmed that the U.S. government had to "jump through hoops," and that the Commerce Department took the unusual step of asking Japanese government officials at the embassy in Washington for help in prodding Japanese suppliers.

But he insisted that it would be an overstatement to call the incident a crisis.

"While it is the first time that our growing dependence on certain critical components was spotlighted in a war setting, we were able to resolve the challenge successfully," he said. "We were lucky we were dealing with allies."

The official would not name the Japanese suppliers or say what kinds of components they were supplying to U.S. defense contractors and subcontractors, but other sources indicated that semiconductors and batteries may have been involved. The official said that suppliers in other foreign countries helped the United States -- as did the Japa

nese after a few weeks.

Sources outside the government suggest that the report could be both scathing and scary. "At the time, the government thought it was far more serious than it now admits," said Clyde Prestowitz Jr., a former Commerce Department counselor for Japanese affairs.

No one knows precisely how dependent the U.S. military is on foreign suppliers. Kevin Kearns, a fellow at the Economic Strategy Institute, said, "The unfortunate fact is, we don't collect those statistics and we don't have a clear picture. We weathered this storm, but since we're losing our leadership in many key technologies, there's no question it's going to get worse."

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