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Shortages of key goods during the coronavirus pandemic revealed America’s dangerous dependence on foreign countries.

Shortages of key goods during the coronavirus pandemic revealed America’s dangerous dependence on foreign countries.

US coronavirus factory

Many Americans were shocked to find that the largest and most advanced economy on Earth was unable to find or produce enough face masks, ventilators, hand sanitizer, testing kits, hospital beds, sedatives, and other medical necessities in response to the COVID-19 crisis. But these supply chain limitations did not surprise those of us in Congress who have been sounding the alarm for many years about our nation’s dangerous dependence on foreign countries.

Without the development of a new national manufacturing strategy, the same forces that drove the United States to neglect our critical supply chains will continue to put our security at risk.

US companies depend on global suppliers too often

Recent shortages of medical supplies and equipment are just one example of the risks we face due to US reliance on other countries for making many of our critical products.

We rely on China and other countries to mine and process the rare earth materials that are essential to many high-technology products, including cell phones, satellites, and computers. We rely on Taiwan and other countries to build the most precise integrated circuits and microchips that are needed for complex electronics used in weapon systems, space systems, and a variety of consumer products.. We rely on Japan and Europe to develop the precision scientific equipment that will produce breakthroughs in nanotechnology, medicine, and future batteries for electric vehicles.

While US manufacturers and domestic suppliers have substantial resources, some of our capabilities and expertise have fallen behind due to this reliance on the global supply chain.

Supply chain security and stability are necessary components of a prosperous manufacturing sector. The manufacturing sector already contributes $2 trillion annually to the US economy. The sector also drives innovation, receiving more than 90% of new patents annually. US manufacturers are essential to ensuring our national defense and homeland security, as they provide the tools, equipment, systems, and protective gear for our military and first responders.

Shifting supply chains threaten US security

But this critical sector is hampered by uncertainty around their overseas suppliers. Manufacturing companies must depend on reliable supply chains to be successful — they need to get the right products to the right place at the right time. Dependable and high-quality suppliers are crucial assets to any manufacturing company.

Critical supply chains are those where substantial harm would come to US economic security, national defense, or way of life if the supply chains were compromised or no longer available.

Imagine if the US could no longer obtain key life-saving medications, rare materials needed to make cell phones work, components for military aircraft or space satellites, precision equipment necessary for scientific study and breakthroughs, or equipment and technologies for power generation and storage. These risks and potential disruptions have been considered in the past but were largely discounted or not considered as primary drivers for business decisions.

With the future of our country’s economy and workforce in mind, we urge our colleagues in Congress to charter a Commission on Critical Supply Chains to study these issues and risks in depth and to make specific policy recommendations to the US Congress.

This commission would be an independent entity that brings together national experts in a highly visible forum to give guidance on several complex and strategically important policy issues, including:

    How can we predict future supply chain disruptions? What can we do now to reduce future vulnerabilities and risks? Can we make the supply chain resilient enough to protect our needed capabilities and resources?

The Commission’s recommendations and the answers to these and other questions will provide a foundation for Congressional debate so that consensus policies can be developed.

The COVID-19 crisis has been a terrible tragedy for our country and the world. Allowing our nation and the US Congress to go back to business as usual would be a disservice to the American people. This is a wakeup call for the United States.

If we don’t take the time now to fix the shortcomings exposed in our national manufacturing strategy, the next crisis—whether it’s a pandemic, a war, or something else—may not afford us another a chance.

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