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Opinion Pieces

Diversifying Supply Chains Is a National Security Priority

Originally published in RealClear Defense.

At this point, it is no secret that COVID-19 has underscored our nation's supply chains' fragility and highlighted the security risks posed by an over-reliance on nations that serve as our greatest strategic competitors.

This is also not a revelation: In July 2017, President Trump directed the Secretary of Defense to assess supply chain resiliency and the strength of the U.S. manufacturing and defense industrial base. The subsequent report, which was issued in September 2018, found that a "surprising level of foreign dependence on competitor nations exists."

As we approach two years since that report was published, we must ask ourselves why we are still left vulnerable today. In part, it is due to the fact that restructuring production and supply chains are a complex undertaking fraught with competing interests. It is also because, without disruption, the "tyranny of the urgent" propels priorities elsewhere. It brings to mind a 2016 House Armed Services Committee debate over the Berry Amendment, which requires standard issuance military equipment to be domestically-made whenever possible – even down to running shoes. In times of peace, having this debate can feel costly and time-consuming. During uncertainty or insecurity, it becomes a national security priority.

That time is now. We cannot afford to wait until the next national crisis to rectify the critical vulnerabilities that are already known. As the administration spearheads the government-wide efforts needed to reduce our dependency on competitor nations, I believe there are three principles that should frame these policy discussions and decisions:

National security is a priority. As we navigate a complex U.S.-China relationship, current security risks compel us to first approach resolving our supply chain dependencies through the lens of national security. The most immediate priority is conducting a strategic, data-driven assessment of production and supply chain bottlenecks and restructure areas that are most critical to resourcing our nation's defense. In the past, that has centered on commodities like steel and oil. Today, critical points in our supply chain range from pharmaceutical inputs for generic drugs and personal protective equipment to carbon fibers, semiconductor components, and the glass used for DoD's night vision systems.

However, simply reacting to today's crises often means equipping servicemembers for yesterday's battles. Our supply chain strategy must also project and address the supply demands of a future force combatting the crises and conflicts of tomorrow. As current and future warfare is increasingly waged in the cyber and space domains, alongside land, air, and sea battlespaces, the government must work with private sector partners to create viable alternatives to China's Huawei 5G infrastructure, and we must get serious about ensuring cyber resiliency for critical infrastructure. COVID-19 has only exposed America to increased vulnerability as more platforms migrate online to accommodate a remote workforce.

Redundancy isn't optional. This is a key element of military preparedness. Diversification of key supply chains — both at the source and manufacturing levels —eliminates the weaknesses of relying on a single major supplier — whether a politically unstable country or a competitor like China. Redundancy also al-lows for critical surge capabilities during a crisis or national emergency. We’ve seen this sorely lacking throughout the COVID-19 outbreak.

From a national security lens, it is important to recognize our adversaries may not be in equally vulnerable positions. “Made in China 2025” is one example of an ongoing integrated military and economic strategy China has designed with the goal of becoming a largely independent scientific and technological power. The U.S. must make its own strategic investments. We cannot allow ourselves to be reliant on any single foreign source — especially an adversary — for critical supplies. Our access to diversified, secure supply chains directly enhances America’s ability to defend herself.

Dependency is a weakness, but alliances can be a strength. While strengthening our domestic manufacturing and defense industrial base is the first priority, there will be opportunities to work alongside trusted allies to enhance this process -- from identifying joint vulnerabilities to developing sustainable alternatives to our dependency on geopolitical rivals that could prove unreliable or adversarial during a crisis or conflict. This may include collaborating with allies, such as Canada, the U.K., and Australia, through structures like the National Technology and Industrial Base, where we can address joint industrial base challenges and increase investment in advanced research and development. The key is that our strategic partnerships must not be built off dependency, but rather bolstered by robust domestic capabilities. This will allow us to harness the innovation and advancements of allied nations without sacrificing our own security.

Building resiliency within U.S. supply chains has always been important. Now, it is also urgent. Times of crisis are often times of great opportunity. All sectors of our government must work together to harness the increased clarity afforded by the coronavirus outbreak and to craft and execute a strategic, sustainable framework for better resourcing our Armed Forces and, for that matter, the entire United States of America.

Representative Brad R. Wenstrup is member of the House Intelligence and Ways & Means committees, U.S. Army Reserve officer, and Doctor of Podiatric Medicine, who has been the U.S. Representative for Ohio's 2nd congressional district since 2013.