To a nation stung by its reputation for inferior goods and questionable quality control, some of the images beamed back from the gulf war have been happy surprises. U. S.-made interceptor missiles streak into the night skies over Riyadh and Tel Aviv to destroy Iraqi Scuds. Laser-guided bombs dive unerringly into enemy bunkers. All in all, gushed Vice-President Dan Quayle, the Administration's war-booster-in-chief, it's "solid evidence of America's preeminence in technology."
But is it? Some defense experts have been fretting over a little-known fact: A growing percentage of the electronic guts of America's smart weapons is made abroad. When it comes to some ultrasophisticated components, such as certain gallium arsenide semiconductors and precision glass for reconnaissance satellites, "the U. S. defense industry is now heavily dependent on foreign sources," warns former top Pentagon procurement official Jacques Gansler. That dependence has some critics worried that America's lead over Europe and Japan in high-tech weapons and electronic parts is narrowing.
And even when the parts aren't all that intricate, the U. S. may have to look overseas. The innards of many "smart" weapons actually contain electronics less complex than consumer products such as video cameras. And with no U. S.-owned consumer electronics industry to speak of, some defense analysts fear the Pentagon will be forced into an unhealthy reliance on foreign knowhow.
COMPLEX IMPORTS. A prime example of the problem is the Sparrow air-to-air missile, which has been used to shoot down Iraqi fighters. A congressional study of the Sparrow found that the most complex parts in the weapon were made overseas. The guidance system had circuits from Japan, a critical memory chip was made in Thailand, and other essential parts bore the West German stamp.
Other items requiring specialized manufacturing processes are increasingly made offshore. Night-vision goggles offer a big edge to U. S. forces in the Saudi desert, and the technology is truly advanced. But U. S. optical companies get the vast majority of their lenses and coatings for these devices from abroad, principally from Singapore. "If something happened to the Singapore supplier of these components, it would take quite some time for American companies to get up to speed," says Robert H. Leshne, past president of the American Precision Optics Manufacturers Assn.
Until recently, the extent of foreign dependency wasn't fully understood because of the sheer complexity of today's weapons. To get a handle on the problem, Commerce and the Navy have spent nearly three years tracing the sources for three high-tech gems: the HARM radar-seeking missile; the Mark 48 torpedo; and the Verdin Communications Device, a sophisticated naval radio system.
The Commerce Dept. told Congress that the yet-to-be-released report examined four layers of 14,000 subcontractors. One key finding: About 20% of the weapons' parts are made abroad. While some may be made in offshore plants of U. S. companies, those factories are still less reliable than ones in the U. S. Why? During wartime, priority production rules apply only to U. S. plants.
OLDER GENERATION. There are long-term worries, too. The hardware doing so well in the gulf is the product of the `70s and early `80s, when military applications were the cutting edge of technology. Now, commercial developments in high-speed computers, composite wings, fiber optics, and flat-panel computer displays drive military applications. That means the nation with the most advanced commercial uses may enjoy the greatest military spin-offs.
Others worry that when high-tech manufacturing moves abroad, research and engineering with potential military use move as well. With few commercial applications to spread costs around, the U. S. could wind up with outdated weapons produced at vast expense. "We're precluding dual-use technology that could be the driver for both commercial and military sectors," says the Hudson Institute's Robert B. Costello, a former Pentagon procurement chief.
So far, the White House hasn't paid much heed to these alarms. But if the war in the gulf proves the worth of high-tech weaponry, the Administration's ho-hum policy toward foreign-made weapons parts could change.