Keeping the Navy's Peacoat Is Not a Matter of National Security

Congress frets that making the woolen coat optional could harm the U.S. "industrial base."

Last August the Navy announced that it's phasing out the classic, navy blue peacoat, a button-up woolen garment that has changed little for centuries, and will switch to a synthetic parka, color black, made in Puerto Rico. The move makes sense. The new parka is light, modern, protects against the elements, and will be cheaper to make once volume production begins, Lieutenant Jessica Anderson, a spokesperson for the chief of naval personnel, told the Providence Journal this year.

Somebody in Congress isn't happy, though. The House Armed Services Committee's Readiness Subcommittee wants the Navy to explain itself and issued a formal question. "The committee is concerned this decision was made without considering upgrades or alternatives to the traditional peacoat or the impact to the nation's domestic textile industrial base," says proposed language, which the readiness subcommittee approved on June 22 and sent to the entire committee.

The language tiptoes up to declaring the peacoat a matter of national security: "As the Department of the Navy works to streamline military uniforms, the committee notes the importance of a stable domestic textile industrial base to produce garments such as these and encourages the Department to take into consideration, when making decisions about uniform changes, such an impact upon the domestic textile industrial base, including the small businesses that provide critical contributions."

Taxpayers for Common Sense spotted the language this week and pointed it out to me, having read my recent article about how national security can sometimes be invoked as an excuse for protectionism. Stephen Ellis, vice president of the organization, said in an interview, "We think that basically the men and women in uniform deserve the best product for the best price, no matter where it is made. It doesn’t have to be a domestic supplier, unless you’re really talking about supercomputers."

The synthetic parka will be phased in ,starting in October 2018, and will become mandatory in October 2020. Sailors can still wear peacoats if they want, but they'll have to use their own money. That's a blow to the coats' maker, Sterlingwear of Boston in East Boston, Mass., as well as the woolen mills that supply it, Northwest Woolen Mills in Woonsocket, R.I., and American Woolen Co. of Stafford Springs, Conn., not to mention American sheep ranchers. "Navy’s decision to abandon iconic pea coat is a blow to the sheep industry," read a March headline in Tri-State Livestock News.

Northwest Woolen Mills' parent company, Brickle Group, tried to persuade the Navy that eliminating the peacoat from sailors' sea bags would harm the profitability of all the companies in the supply chain and jeopardize or drive up the price of other woolen products that they supply to the armed forces, including berets, gloves, sweaters, and blankets, President Max Brickle told me today. "Someone has to raise the red flag," he says.

That leaves open the question of whether America's fighting forces truly need woolen garments. And if they do, whether they have to be made in the U.S. The Berry Amendment requires uniforms to be made entirely in the U.S. "We support the Berry Amendment," Brickle said. If another country supplied American uniforms and war broke out with it or one of its allies, Brickle said, "all it would have to do is stop those container ships from coming here."

The problem is that goods from U.S. manufacturers, sheltered from competition, can sometimes be high-priced and low-tech. "It’s like a set piece from a bygone era," the Boston Globe wrote in 2014 after a visit to Sterlingwear of Boston's factory floor. (The synthetic parka will be produced by Propper, a military supplier headquartered in St. Louis, at its plant in Puerto Rico.)

The language asking for an explanation from the Navy was included in the chairman's mark, which is submitted to the subcommittee jointly by its Republican chairman, Robert Wittman of Virginia, and its top Democrat, Madeleine Bordallo of Guam. If adopted by Congress, it becomes part of the National Defense Authorization Act, the annual legislation that finances the Pentagon.

    Peter Coy
    Bloomberg Businessweek Columnist
    Peter Coy is the economics editor for Bloomberg Businessweek and covers a wide range of economic issues. He also holds the position of senior writer. Coy joined the magazine in December 1989 as telecommunications editor, then became technology editor in October 1992 and held that position until joining the economics staff. He came to BusinessWeek from the Associated Press in New York, where he had served as a business news writer since 1985.
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