My April 18, 2024 “To the Point” blog covered “Steelmaker Woes, CNH and Pyrrhic Victories … It’s About the Margin, Stupid!” 

In that opinion piece that wove several topics into one, I leveraged the example of U.S. Steel’s fall to make a point about how a loss in domestically-owned manufacturing capacity brings risks to our national security. You see, I cut my professional “teeth” covering the North American foundry industry. Ever since, I’ve remained in tune to the risks of the ongoing disappearance of our nation’s “hard industries.”

If one isn’t concerned about the hard industries’ wealth-creation, the jobs of all types, the economic contribution up and down the supply chain and manufacturers’ role as anchor-employers in the communities, one might ponder the void that could be left by their absence. One that easily comes to mind is an inability for our nation to defend or rebuild itself. In that April blog, I promised to “take up that rant another time.”

But the May 11, 2024 Wall Street Journal (WSJ) “Letter to the Editor” by Dale R. McIntyre said it so well that I’m yielding the spot to Mr. McIntyre here. What follows is the letter as it appeared in the WSJ under the title of “Does America Have the Means to Fight Again?”

(Journalist) Mark Helprin’s many concerns about American strategy and will to face its enemies are all valid ("Are Americans Ready for War?" Weekend Interview by Barton Swaim, May 4). Even he, however, doesn't in this interview face up to a fundamental threat to America's military power.

Heavy industry in the U.S. has hollowed out in the past 30 to 35 years. Shipyards, steel mills, aluminum smelters, foundries and forges, hobbled with high labor costs and byzan-tine regulations, Not only China, but South Korea, Indonesia, Malaysia and Taiwan have replaced the U.S. as leader in heavy hardware. The strategic implications are profound.

The production surge that let America lead the Allies to victory in World War II couldn't be repeated today, since there is no surge capacity in our key industries. To cite one example, the Kaiser miracle, in which 2,700 Liberty ships were built in four years, would be impossible today. No shipyards. Not enough steel. China could do it, though. 

The U.S. struggles at present to produce a monthly total of 40,000 artillery shells of 155mm NATO caliber. There are plans to increase that production rate to 100,000 a month by year's end. Russia, by contrast, is reportedly on track to produce three million artillery shells a year.

Since the fall of the Soviet Union, there has been wishful thinking in U.S. policy circles that there would never again be a need for an economy running at full throttle to support a total war. Let us pray this isn't an existential misjudgment.

Soft, squishy service economies, such as the U.S. has become, face grave dangers when the barbarians begin to hammer at the gates.

What My Past Taught Me

My years employed at the American Foundry Society exposed me to many “what if questions” should foundries continue to close at the rapid rate I reported on from 1992-2003. American colonists were pouring castings in the 1600s, and seven of the signers of the Declaration of Independence were foundrymen.

While I rarely saw machined cast heads, blocks and parts reach national business conversations in the 1990s, covering the industry as I did gave me a front-row seat for an array of trends that let’s just say were less than positive for one of the nation’s original industries. 

A short list includes the following: Extensive environmental & OSHA regulations … Offshore dumping practices eating America’s lunch … A disinterest in manufacturing in favor of a service economy … Inability to find manual laborers despite well-paying jobs for some workers with fewer choices … Organized factions who brought both OEMs and their casting and machining suppliers to their knees, and who fought clear technological advancements over fear of job displacements.

Back in those days, I’d spend a few days each spring in Washington D.C. marching up Capitol Hill. Through discussions with foundry execs, lobbyists and elected officials (including both friend and foe to our cause) on those congressional visits, I developed an attentive look at the many scenarios as metals manufacturing increasingly faded away. 

Following 9/11, for example, it wasn’t a reach to question how a loss of capacity could hinder our ability to defend, or rebuild the infrastructure of, our nation. I recall a specialized American tank part that could only be sourced via one capable supplier – located in France. I even once started a heated debate arguing that manufacturing needed a support system like agriculture is afforded.

From the date of my last speaking assignment on the industry 20 years ago, the number of domestic metalcasting facilities of all metals and casting processes have halved; to just 1700 today, according to the 2024 Metalcasting Forecast & Trends released by the American Foundry Society.

Up to Today

I long ago traded my notebooks from reporting on “molten” iron (foundries) to “assembled” iron (farm equipment) but the “sand in the shoes” and safety glasses were never out of sight. And since starting the ag equipment chapter of my career, I became even more aware of how the tractor manufacturers stepped up and were relied upon to support wartime production and give our soldiers our best machinery. But for any of those manufacturing entities to be around tomorrow – and I’m talking a foundry, a forge, a tractor or implement OEM, etc. – they also need to survive today.

So when we gather Monday to honor and remember our deceased soldiers, take a moment to imagine ourselves eyeball-to-eyeball with those generations who have, and will continue to give their lives to protect our nation. Imagine facing them with the knowledge that we allowed core industries to cease to exist or lumber along in a slow limp – all due to bad politics and special interests?

What do you think those who went before us would say about our inability to protect domestic production capacity? It’s happening on “our watch” today…