WASHINGTON — Missiles we've got, and heavy artillery, but in the event of a major military mobilization, the U.S. fighting man may have to go to war in his stocking feet.
According to a recent General Accounting Office report, the Defense Department's reserve stocks of combat footwear--from leather boots to rubber overshoes--are seriously below requirements "due primarily to funding limitations."
The GAO found the situation worst in the Army, the home of the foot soldier, which accounts for 90% of the armed forces' shoe requirements. As of May, 1984, the Army had stockpiled 18% of projected needs for rubber overshoes, 29% for insulated cold-weather boots and 83% for boots suitable for jungle combat.
Knee Boots Plentiful
The Army also was short on ski boots, with 72% of the 2,684 pairs its planners deemed necessary. One category of footwear is in plentiful supply, however. The Army has 4,148 pairs of knee boots, 100% of the required stockpile.
"These shortages result largely because the support activity does not have sufficient funding to meet all requests received from the major commands," the GAO said.
The GAO report was requested by Sen. William S. Cohen (R-Me.) and Rep. Bill Alexander (D-Ark.), who hail from states with significant shoe industries and head the Senate and House Footwear caucuses, respectively.
"He's always looking for ways to strengthen the footwear industry," said an aide to Cohen. "And he's also a member of the Armed Services Committee."
The GAO said, however, that stepping up Pentagon boot purchases is not likely to be the salvation of the domestic shoe industry. "Defense purchases, which represent only about 1% of domestic consumption of footwear, can sustain only a very small portion of the footwear industries," it said.
Short on Ammunition
Deficiencies in war-reserve stockpiles are not uncommon in the armed services. Last March, a House subcommittee found that the Pentagon had not warehoused enough ammunition, fuel or spare parts, either. But the shoe pinch presents an additional concern.
Reserve stockpiles are intended to cover the first 60 days of a conflict, after which U.S. industries are expected to have geared up sufficiently to meet military needs. For footwear, as for food, textiles and other items, the military is legally required to "buy American."
But the cobbler's trade has fallen on hard times in the United States in recent years because of proliferating imports, and the GAO said it was doubtful that the industry could meet the military's needs in a crisis.
The Pentagon's Defense Personnel Support Center, which buys military apparel, reported in 1983 that "the domestic industry could not meet mobilization needs for black cold-weather insulated boots," the GAO said. "Further, the loss of even one supplier would jeopardize its ability to meet mobilization requirements for hot-weather (jungle) boots and vinyl combat overshoes."
Practically a Steal
It isn't clear what it would cost the Pentagon to fill its shoe closet, but one supplier contended that, in an era of $900 hammers and $640 toilet seats, the combat boot is practically a steal for the Pentagon.
Dave Greenbaum of Bata Shoe Co. in Belle Camp, Md., said his company's best cold-weather boot--an insulated model that is effective to 40 degrees below zero even if the wearer is immobile--is sold to the military for $60 a pair, less than half the retail price of a similar commercial model.