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Group Backs Strong Economy as Vital to U.S. Defense

Times Staff Writer

When 19th-Century American merchant sailors were kidnaped by North African pirates who demanded ransom from the United States, the slogan “millions for defense, but not one cent for tribute” became a rallying cry for a hike in defense spending.

But today, when jet fighters can cost several million dollars each and fighting off a handful of pirates could turn into a multibillion-dollar endeavor, some business executives are beginning to question the need for ever-spiraling military budgets.

That Pentagon shopping sprees often do little to enhance national security and, in the long run, may leave Americans less safe than they think, was the message delivered Monday to a small gathering of Orange County business people by Stanley Weiss, founder of Business Executives for National Security.

Hosted by Thomas Nielsen, president of the Irvine Co., Monday’s invitation-only luncheon included several local business leaders, among them J. Robert Fluor II, a vice president of the Fluor Corp., and Frank Smith, executive director of the Orange County Economic Development Corp. Both Fluor and Smith said during the lunch that they attended because they share some of Weiss’ concerns, although neither is a member of the group.

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Although the 2-year-old lobbying group may appear at first glance to be anti-defense, Weiss said BENS, as the organization is called, is nonpartisan. It was founded, he said, to promote the belief that the strength of the economy is as important to national defense as is the size of the arsenal.

The group has gone on record in opposition to the controversial MX missile program, claiming it is unproven and too costly for the protection its supporters claim it will provide.

“We are the only country in the world with four air forces,” Weiss said in an interview after the luncheon, referring to the separate units that the Navy, Marine Corps and Army maintain in addition to the Air Force. “You don’t have to be a business genius to know that this will cost you more and give you less in the long run.”

Moreover, he said, unnecessary “gold plating,” which drives up the costs of individual weapons systems, can combine with often inferior products to leave the United States in a vulnerable position should war ever break out.

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One example Weiss cited is the Army’s new Gen. Bradley armored personnel carrier, which at $2 million each, costs 10 times what its predecessor did and has been criticized by some military analysts as being less safe than earlier models because of its aluminum armor. “If my son were running around out there (in combat),” he said. “I’d be scared. . . .”

Weiss, who is chairman of American Minerals Inc., based in Newcastle, Del., said BENS doesn’t advocate blanket defense cuts but instead favors a “top-to-bottom” reevaluation of U.S. defense needs coupled with businesslike decision making so the nation gets the best defense for the money.

In particular, he argues, the military should adopt more competitive bidding processes when searching for arms contractors and should make fewer specifications when seeking bids, leaving the task of finding what works best to the contractors themselves.

Monday’s luncheon was the group’s first foray into Orange County, said Michelle Syverson, BENS’s Southern California regional director. She said that she hopes over the next year to boost the organization’s local membership from the present dozen companies to as many as 100.

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Despite what she described as Orange County’s “John Wayne” conservative reputation, Syverson said local business people can readily identify with an industry-based organization that advocates cost-effective defense.

“There are a lot of small entrepreneurs in Orange County,” she said. “They would never run their businesses the way the Pentagon runs its business.”

Nielsen, who served as an assistant secretary of the Air Force from 1967 to 1969, said that although he has not yet decided whether to join the lobbying group, the issues Weiss raised have been around for some time.

“We were thinking about those things 18 years ago,” Nielsen said, adding that he doesn’t believe that Orange County businesses would be opposed to the group’s goal of getting a better return for defense dollars.

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“As long as people understand the nature of the organization . . . I think people will be willing to discuss the issues,” he said.


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