In last month’s edition of this column, I outlined some of
the problems affecting our industrial base, from a macro perspective.
This month, I want to reverse the telescope for a micro perspective.
Specifically, let’s direct our attention to a sector—actually
a sub-sector—and the potential impact it can have on the long-term
readiness of our military forces. The sub-sector, in this case,
is the portion of our industrial base that designs and builds fuzes.
Fuzes are critical and essential elements of all effective munitions.
Fuzes are part of Army and Marine Corps artillery projectiles, Air
Force and Navy bombs and rockets, guided missiles of all services,
as well as the various new high-tech precision guided munitions.
Fuzes must have the highest reliability to ensure they detonate
with utmost accuracy. Further, perhaps more importantly, fuzes must
work properly so they can prevent munitions from detonating prematurely.
And fuzes must retain this high reliability during long years—usually
decades—of storage. Finally, fuzes must fulfill these requirements
while subjected to often extreme environments, such as thousands
of “g’s” of acceleration when fired from large
Fuzes can be as simple or complex as their application demands:
from a simple point-detonating fuze that activates on impact, to
proximity fuzes that sense the closeness of their target, to a fuze
that counts how many floors it has passed through before it detonates.
As you might imagine, fuzes are defense-unique products. The buyers
are the military services and the Defense Department. There is no
commercial market into which companies can diversify, or upon which
the Defense Department can fall back for support. So, if we are
to retain a capability to equip our military with fuzes—and
we must—we need to retain the fuze industrial base.
Unfortunately, we do not seem to be doing too well in that effort.
In 1987, when Pentagon budgets started to contract, there were 31
firms in the electronic and electromechanical fuze business. Today,
there are six or fewer survivors. As this article was being written,
one of the six survivors was purchased by one of the defense conglomerates
known for its “profit or perish” policy.
For some fuze component elements, such as air-driven turbines and
batteries, only one or two domestic producers remain. The majority
of these survivors are small niche businesses. Few, if any of the
businesses, produce the same or competing fuzes, or components,
as do the other survivors in this niche sector.
A parallel loss of expertise and capacity has occurred within the
government development and production support arenas, and mirrors
the reduction in defense budgets in general, and munitions procurement
The lesson that we must take from this microcosm of the overall
defense industrial base is that this is what happens to industrial
sectors when procurement accounts dramatically drop off. The industrial
sectors dry up and essentially drift away. And when they are gone,
they are gone. They may or may not be easily reconstituted.
Of course, the reformers and the efficiency experts will not buy
this argument. Their view is that, when procurement contracts are
up for bidding and there is money on the table, the industrial base
will respond. These reformers also may recommend that the United
States procure fuzes from the global marketplace, or they may even
suggest that we just are not going to need that technology any more.
But rather than letting the fuze sub-sector, as well as other industrial
sub-sectors, continue to wither, the Defense Secretary must establish
an effective focal point within his office to ensure the industrial
capacity in fuzes, as well as other sectors, is adequately preserved
to meet both current and projected national needs.
Perhaps, there is a ray of hope in the statement of the new Pentagon
acquisition chief, Pete Aldridge, during his confirmation hearings,
in which he said that the Pentagon needs “constant monitoring
of our defense industrial base and critical technology and manufacturing
areas to anticipate where we think vulnerabilities exist so that
we can take action to ensure future supply is reliable.”
Welcome aboard Secretary Aldridge. Fuzes need your attention.