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Why are Prisoners Building Patriot Missiles?

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Right now, federal prison inmates in correctional institutions across America are making Patriot missile components. Alarming? Sure. But it could also inform a larger debate currently underway in Washington.

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John O. Noonan, defense policy advisor at the Foreign Policy Initiative and former US Air Force nuclear missile combat crew commander, sees little, if any, downside to procuring military hardware from prisons. He wrote in an email message:

"As long as proper security protocols are followed, [it] looks fine. If using prison labor helps keep defense systems costs down, with minimal security risk and a clean bill of ethical health, then more power to Lockheed and sub-contracting agencies."

There is no lack of debate among the various interested parties on the ethics of prison labor; no consensus has ever been reached on what constitutes "ethical" regarding FPI since it opened for business almost 80 years ago.

Regarding cost, the current Unicor "Electronic Capabilities" brochure claims that the prison labor can reduce certain expenditures by as much as 40%. "These cost savings have saved the Navy more than a million dollars," says one statement [PDF].

The security protocols Noonan mentions don't bother the Heritage Foundation's Mackenzie Eaglen, a policy expert with a focus on the defense industrial base and the size and structure of the nation's armed forces.

"Building one piece of one part of one missile is not going to give away the nation's crown jewels," she says.

However, Eaglen dismisses the idea that the defense industry may be overplaying its need to avoid budget cuts by any means necessary.

"My assumption is, this program is confined to basic manufacturing. There's a big difference between a highly-skilled worker and someone who inserts a widget," she says.

In fact, it appears that prison labor capabilities are becoming, if anything, more and more advanced. Unicor literature points out:

  • Our in-house prototyping, engineering, manufacturing and distribution capabilities allow us to streamline the entire design-through-delivery process, providing highly integrated services and overall time and cost savings for our customers.

  • Our team of electrical engineers and technicians are skilled in Computer-Aided Design (CAD) and can produce production-ready designs and high-quality prototypes to exacting military and commercial specifications. We recently designed, prototyped and engineered specialized lighting kits for the Army and Air Force and land mine sweepers for use in the Middle East.

  • Our engineering services include developing mechanical designs and documentation, machining and fabrication requirements, and quality assurance specifications. Our leading-edge coordinate measuring systems allow us to perform fast, accurate tolerance-checking to ensure the precision of our prototyping services.
As the very definition of war continues to evolve, Chris Preble wonders how to even accurately define "the defense industry."

"What exactly are we talking about in preserving our 'unique' industrial base," Preble says. "What exactly is that set of unique skills that, as a matter of national security, we continue to subsidize and absolutely must maintain at all costs -- including the opportunity cost -- of dictating that certain people be employed in certain areas, short-circuiting the market for presumably long-term objectives?

"Our ability to design militarily relevant, even revolutionary, technologies is the best in the world. Does that make every engineering school in America part of the military industrial base? Michael Dell (DELL) and Bill Gates (MSFT) dropped out of college. Where in the value chain, or as they call it in the military, the 'development cycle,' do you draw the line?"

On a more philosophical level, Preble is concerned that all the panic over maintaining the defense industrial base indicates a deeper problem.

"Our strength as a country is our ingenuity, our dynamism," he says. "I get the feeling that there is a sort of lack of confidence in America's adaptability and flexibility. I worry about locking in to a certain concept, maintaining certain platforms, certain people, certain jobs, because we somehow know for certain that those pieces of metal and electronics will the determinant factor in warfare 20 years from now. We have no idea what will be happening in the world 20 years from now. I'm concerned that we will preclude what has always been our real strong suit -- our ability to succeed."
No positions in stocks mentioned.
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