America's Next National Security Risk: Footwear?

The sneaker lobby fights for American athletic shoes on our troops

(AP Photo/Brennan Linsley) (National Journal)

The keys to a strong military are coordinated intelligence efforts, high-tech weaponry, and good shoes "“ American-made shoes, that is, according to certain members of the sneaker lobby.

U.S. law requires that all clothing, boots and dress shoes for new military recruits be American-made. However, one of the exceptions under the so-called Berry Amendment, which was originally passed in 1941, is athletic footwear. The estimated 225,000 new military recruits every year, instead, receive a cash allowance to buy their own sneakers with no requirement on where the shoes were made. The Pentagon program is valued at $15 million a year.

This program puts the training of U.S. troops at risk, says Matt LeBretton, the director of public affairs for American shoemaker New Balance, one of 13 companies urging President Obama and lawmakers to back a change to the Berry Amendment. He argues that an insufficient shoe could either increase the possibility for a training injury or lead to hamper troop fitness.

Sequestration, it would seem, is not the only thing that could affect military readiness.

"It only makes sense to have a shoe that's designed for the rigors of training," LeBretton said. "And they're not doing that today."

But it's not just for the military's sake that this new law passes. With many of these proposals, it's also about economics. Supporting American manufacturing boosts the economic and promotes hiring, LeBretton argues.

"We believe that as a company that making things in the United States matters, and it should matter," LeBretton said. "A lot of people, from the president on down to through congressional leaders and rank-and-file members, say the same thing."

New Balance is one of the only remaining companies that make their shoes in the U.S. Other American companies like Nike and Vans produce their shoes overseas. Thirty-eight different companies go into producing New Balance shoes. A $500,000 contract for a 40-person company, he said, could go a long way.

A bipartisan mix of 15 senators is putting their support behind this change. They include Sens. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, Jack Reed, D-R.I., Lindsey Graham, R-S.C, Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., Roy Blunt, R-Mo., John Boozman, R-Ark., Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., Mo Cowan, D-Mass., Bob Casey, D-Penn., and Chris Murphy, D-Conn.

The letter to the president was authored by Maine Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King, which makes sense, considering that a majority of New Balance's manufacturing employees are located in their state. LeBretton estimates 200 new manufacturing jobs could be created if this were to go through.

While this change could be made through the Defense Department or the president, neither has seemed willing to go through with it. And while the request is a bit unusual "“ as LeBretton said, "We're in the shoe business and we didn't think of it" "“ this change can be made administratively or through congressional action.

As Napoleon Bonaparte once said, "An army marches on its stomach." Well, in this case, an army should only march on American-made shoes, proponents of this new change would argue.