Dig a Well Before You Thirst

DAVID EVANS

June 23, 1993|By DAVID EVANS

Washington. -- Not only is America's military shrinking, but so is the industrial base that supports it. What may be needed, for want of a better term, is an industrial national guard, a pool of key production workers who could be mobilized to re-energize defense production in an emergency.

''We are losing an average of 20,000 defense workers per month,'' said Larry Skibbie, president of the American Defense Preparedness Association. A retired Army general, he heads an organization that was created as a result of the poor state of America's industrial preparedness before World War I, a tale that ominously seems to be playing out again.

Defense plants can be mothballed, the machine tools protected under a layer of grease and the doors locked, but the production workers can't be mothballed. In fact, they are fast disappearing into the general economy. Recall the old Chinese proverb: ''Dig a well before you're thirsty.'' Message: Be prepared to build back up.

Presently the Defense Department is attempting to maintain a skilled pool of industrial labor in two ways, neither of which may be terribly efficient.

The first comes under the rubric of ''dual-use'' technology, where a defense plant that made air conditioners to cool the electronics on Navy warships converts to, say, the production of air conditioners for commercial produce-carrying trucks. In the event of mobilization, the workers would switch back to defense production.

However, not all defense-production skills have a ''dual-use'' application. For example, the worker who has the special skills for welding the depleted-uranium armor on the M-1 tank, or the one who is adept at assembling the electro-optical components in the military's night-vision equipment.

The Pentagon's other approach comes under the heading of make-work: building weapons that may not be needed in pTC peacetime just to keep the work force in place. For example, the Navy is spending more than $1 billion to construct the SSN-21 Seawolf submarine, a weapon based on Cold War needs, partly out of concern that without some form of ongoing construction, the capability to build submarines would dry up.

That $1 billion, however, pays not only for, say, 1,000 key production workers, such as the welders skilled in joining pieces of the unique high-strength steel used in submarine-hull construction, but also for perhaps two or three times that number of not-so-vital people, such as janitors and the Gucci-shoe and Rolex-watch people in management.

Consider, however, a more cost-effective program organized along the concept of the National Guard, where airmen and soldiers partake of monthly weekend drills and two weeks' summer training to maintain at least a modicum of readiness for call-up.

For industry, the Defense Department could identify key production skills that would be needed during mobilization and offer a modest stipend to former defense-industry workers who volunteer to be available for recall. These individuals would also agree to participate in two weeks of annual training, either at defense plants or at the military's depots, which virtually rebuild entire weapons, or they could participate in continuing education to maintain their skills.

These workers could be paid about $150 a day, plus travel expenses, which works out to about $3,000 a year, which is less than the $5,500 average annual cost of an enlisted soldier in the National Guard.

A ready reserve for industry would be a modest program, covering about 20,000 really key production workers, which at $3,000 per head works out to a total cost of about $60 million a year. That is a good deal cheaper than building an unneeded submarine and makes more sense.

There is a peculiar irony here. The choke point for military mobilization is the reverse of that for industrial mobilization. The 14 million untrained civilian males registered for the draft will utterly saturate the military's inadequate training base, while defense plants could stay vacant for want of trained workers.

General Skibbie pointed out the philosophical issue: ''I have always looked on industry as sort of a fifth service behind the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps, and they can only be as ready as this fifth service.''

A short review of the history of the U.S. logistics victory called World War II, or more recently Desert Storm, is all the proof that's needed.

David Evans is military-affairs writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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