Oversoled military finds filling boots a tough order Lawmakers require more despite surplus

November 22, 1991|By Richard H. P. Sia | Richard H. P. Sia,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- U.S. lawmakers have given a swift kick to the sagging fortunes of four small companies by requiring the military to buy $70 million in combat boots in 1992, even though supply depots are overstocked with 2 million pairs.

The purchases could add as many as 2 million more pairs to the stockpile in the coming year, even as the size of the military shrinks to fit into the Pentagon's post-Cold War defense structure.

"That's a hell of a lot of boots, especially when you don't know what your force structure will be in the long run," said Gerald C. Flessate, a senior official at the Defense Logistics Agency, which is responsible for outfitting the military services. The Army, which gets the bulk of every order of combat boots, is expected to shrink from 710,000 soldiers to 618,000 by the end of 1993.

The final version of the 1992 defense appropriations bill, which heads to the White House in a matter of days, emerged from a House-Senate conference committee this week with a new provision requiring a $70 million purchase of "direct molded sole combat boots," for which there are only four U.S. suppliers.

They are Wellco Enterprises Inc. of Waynesville, N.C.; McRae Industries of Wadeville, N.C.; Belleville Shoe of Belleville, Ill.; and Altama Delta of Darien, Ga.

"The conferees remain concerned about the fragile industrial base to support the production of combat boots," said a conference report prepared by members of the House and Senate defense appropriations subcommittees. "Even though combat boots are essential to the readiness of our forces, the [Defense] Department continues to order them in a [sic] irregular manner which creates uncertainty in the industry and results in unnecessarily high costs to the taxpayer."

Lawmakers demanded "no less than" $70 million in boot purchases and required defense officials to devise a buying plan by April to keep production lines going "over the next several years."

Horace Auberry, chairman of Wellco Enterprises, said yesterday that the boot makers all use unusual machinery that makes it difficult to vary their product line. The firms employ a total of 1,500 workers, he said.

Despite a brief surge in orders during the Persian Gulf war, military budgets have been reduced and second-quarter orders have been curtailed, Mr. Auberry said.

On Nov. 1, executives from each of the companies arrived at a Senate Armed Services Committee room to meet defense officials and aides to lawmakers eager to help boot manufacturers in their home states. Participants said Sen. Sam Nunn, D-Ga., the committee chairman, and Representative W. G. "Bill" Hefner, D-N.C., of the House defense appropriations subcommittee, were represented.

Mr. Auberry credited Mr. Hefner with inserting the $70 million order into the appropriations bill at the last minute. He said other support came from Sen. Alan J. Dixon, D-Ill., an Armed Services Committee member; and North Carolina Sens. Jesse Helms, RTC Republican, and Terry Sanford, a Democrat.

Officials at the Defense Personnel Support Center, which executes boot contracts, said about 2 million pairs are stored in supply depots across the country. "We're catching hell now for having too much inventory," Mr. Flessate said. "I would submit to you that it's stuff like this that results in that."

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