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Detroit Bailout: A Matter Of National Security?

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Detroit Bailout: A Matter Of National Security?

Economy

Detroit Bailout: A Matter Of National Security?

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

One of the arguments being made for a bailout of the auto industry goes like this: It's a matter of national security.

Senator CARL LEVIN (Michigan, Democrat): It is that industrial base which produces the tanks, the trucks, the planes, the ships that are so important. And the more that goes overseas, the less secure we are.

MONTAGNE: That's Michigan Senator Carl Levin, a longtime supporter of the auto industry, making the case. To learn more about the connections between the Big Three and the military, we reached retired Marine Lieutenant Colonel Dakota Wood, now of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. Good morning.

Mr. DAKOTA L. WOOD (Senior Fellow, Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments): Good morning.

MONTAGNE: Now, could you give us a little history here? What has been the connection between Detroit and national security?

Mr. WOOD: Well, I think it's a connection that goes back to the 1940s, where the U.S. had to ramp up massive levels of production of various types of vehicles, ships, planes, cars. And the U.S. industrial base was just put in full support of manufacturing material goods. And you saw recycling rubber and metal and silk for parachutes instead of stockings and those types of things.

MONTAGNE: So it was sort of a version of Rosie the Riveter - that is, a civilian industry turned towards military.

Mr. WOOD: It was a nation mobilized for war, that's exactly right.

MONTAGNE: Well, bringing this up, then, to the present and this current argument about national security. How much involvement do automakers have now in producing combat vehicles at this point and other technology for wartime use?

Mr. WOOD: In vehicle manufacture, it's virtually zero. If you were to just go across all the major land combat systems that have been procured over the last couple of decades, these assets or platforms are being developed wholly separate from the U.S. automobile industry. There are a half a dozen companies that produce virtually every land combat vehicle that the US uses. None of that includes Ford, Chrysler or General Motors.

MONTAGNE: What about what I think people think of, they think of Humvees, you know, one thinks that somehow they're connected through Detroit back to the military.

Mr. WOOD: And that's, I mean, it really came out of the Gulf War. AM General, in league with General Motors, produced the H1, which was a civilianized version of the military vehicle. They stopped production of that a couple of years ago. But General Motors purchased rights to the name Hummer and made the H2, and then the most recent iteration is the H3. So, under licensing, AM General manufactures the H2 Hummer, but they produce this in completely separate plants and even actively discourage employees from the Humvee plant from visiting or interacting with the operations in the Hummer H2 plants located in the same compound. And if you look at the insides and the underneath, the components and how it's put together, the military version is a completely different vehicle than the civilianized version is.

MONTAGNE: Well, could the argument be made, though, that automakers are developing technologies that could in the future be useful to the military? That certainly has happened.

Mr. WOOD: Absolutely, and I don't want to dismiss or minimize that at all. We're - we have a lot of parallel efforts that are going on, especially in hybrid drives and generating large amounts of electricity from something other than fossil fuel sources. And to the extent that those can be incorporated into the military vehicles, the military would be thrilled with that. So there is that much...

MONTAGNE: So it does - there is a linkage, and it sounds like that could be problem if there was, for instance, no or a very small auto industry.

Mr. WOOD: I think you have to separate the arguments that are being made, where you can say with - painting with a very broad brush, that the U.S. economic health and our industrial base is linked to national security matters. But how broad a brush do you paint on that? If it's talking specifically about the U.S. auto industry, there are ample reasons for keeping that alive and healthy apart from a production of military equipment, which it doesn't do. But, I think it's a false argument to directly link the Big Three auto manufacturers with the production of military-specific combat systems.

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much for joining us.

Mr. WOOD: Yes ma'am, thank you.

MONTAGNE: Dakota Wood is a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, an independent policy institute in Washington, D.C. You're listening to Morning Edition from NPR News.

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