Since retiring as a brigadier general after a 30-year career in the U.S. Army, I have continued to work to find ways to strengthen America's national security. To that end, I recently prepared a report that studied supply chokepoints in the American defense industrial base.
One of its conclusions: An increasing reliance on steel imported from international competitors puts our national security at risk.
The international market is awash in steel from China's state-owned mills. Although Washington has erected tariffs to keep Chinese steel at bay, its ripple effects are still felt here. In the U.S. market — one of the most open in the world — mills have idled in response to the cratering prices this flood has created. Imports are taking an increasingly large slice of the pie.
There's nothing wrong with fair market competition, but there's a heavier consideration at play: An overreliance on imports erodes our domestic steel industry's position as a cornerstone of our defensive infrastructure.
The Trump administration is considering that right now. It has turned to U.S. trade law — a Section 232 investigation — to determine whether the situation in the steel market constitutes a national security threat. I believe it does, and it can't be ignored. Steel is a vital input in the manufacture of America's defense and critical infrastructure — used in everything from ships, tanks, and armaments to bridges, rail systems, our electrical grid, and energy infrastructure.
It's clearly in our best interest that the steel for such inputs is American-made. We therefore must maintain our ability to make it.
In some sectors we're already reaching a breaking point. There is a single American manufacturer left, for instance, of the high-end electrical steel needed to maintain the domestic energy grid. After that industry's case against unfair trade was lost at our own International Trade Commission, it exposed the paper-thin line between a lack of redundancy in a key product and an outright manufacturing incapacity.
It takes considerable know-how to create such specialized steel — and if the demand is there, domestic manufacturers can meet it. Each Abrams tank, for example, requires 22 tons of steel plate. A Nimitz-class aircraft carrier requires 50,000 such tons, and must be able to withstand the impact of a 27-ton F-18 Hornet aircraft landing on its deck at 150 miles per hour; shield the crew from radiation generated by onboard nuclear reactors; and survive the impact of shells and other projectiles.
To this point, all of that has been American-made.
Provided a stable home market, America's steel industry can continue to supply such needs. Just as domestic steelmakers transformed their operations to equip the U.S. military during World War II, they responded to the need for armored plate for Mine-Resistant Ambush-Protected vehicles that could withstand IED blasts during recent conflicts in the Middle East.
When the Department of Defense asked foreign suppliers to "up-armor" American vehicles, those orders were placed at the back of months-long queues. Only American steel companies — subject to "rated orders" that scheduled in weeks, not months — could provide our troops with protection in a timely manner.
We should more appreciate the skill and experience it takes to create a metal that meets such standards.
Naturally, only a small percentage of American steel production is geared toward use in defense or critical infrastructure applications. But it is the commercial viability of domestic production that makes it possible to keep the industry for its most vital application. It allows manufacturers to make the costly investments to produce steel that can meet exacting military specifications. And it's unimaginable that we would be forced to share the specifications to produce the steel used in some of our most sensitive weapons systems with strategic competitors such as China and Russia.
If we lose that viability to a flood of state-subsidized imports, that skilled labor and experience will not be easily recovered.
Were that to happen, a critical part of the American defense industrial base would have to be supplied by rivals that may not have our best interests in mind. And we would have sacrificed a little more long-term security for short-term profit. I hope the Trump administration takes that into account while it considers the ramifications of the steel import crisis.
Brig. Gen. John Adams (U.S. Army, ret.) is the author of "Remaking American Security" and the president of Guardian Six Consulting.
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