Should America build a strategic shoe reserve?

The military must buy 100% US-made boots and uniforms. The shoe industry wants that requirement for sneakers, too.

By MSN Money Partner Mar 6, 2014 3:45PM
Caption: Soldiers walking in field
Credit: © West Coast Surfer/Getty Images James R. Hagerty and Ben Kesling, The Wall Street Journal

The U.S. military trusts American manufacturers to make missiles, fighter jets and nuclear submarines. But can they be trusted to produce safe sneakers?

America's vestigial shoe industry insists it can deliver. After years of debate, the Department of Defense has agreed to consider that possibility.

Under a provision of 1941 legislation known as the Berry Amendment, the Defense Department must buy boots, uniforms and certain other items that are 100 percent U.S.-made. It can make exceptions if U.S. manufacturers don't have the capacity to make what it needs, and has done so for athletic shoes needed for boot camp.

The Army, Navy and Air Force "allow members to select and wear the type and size of athletic shoe that provides the greatest comfort and reduces the potential for injury," regardless of where they are made, a Defense Department official said.

But now, under pressure from the domestic shoe industry and lawmakers, particularly those from Massachusetts, Maine and Michigan that have some of the country's few remaining shoe plants, the military is going to review its exemption for U.S.-made sneakers.

Earlier this year, defense officials asked footwear makers to provide information about their ability to reliably produce the sneakers domestically. If the shoemakers convince officials that they have enough capacity to make the shoes in the U.S., the department may order that Army, Navy and Air Force personnel be outfitted with U.S.-made sneakers.

Shoemakers say that will add jobs both at their plants and at suppliers. The department said no decision has been made yet and it doesn't know when one will be.

New Balance Athletic Shoe and Wolverine Worldwide (WWW) both say they could provide 100 percent U.S.-made athletic footwear for the military. Others expressing interest include Capps Shoe Co., a maker of military shoes, and two producers of military boots: Wellco Enterprises Inc. and the Danner unit of LaCrosse Footwear Inc.

Rep. Mike Michaud, a Maine Democrat, has presented President Obama and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel with black mesh New Balance athletic shoes in an effort to show them the possibilities of local production.

"It's mind-boggling why the president doesn't do an executive order" requiring the Defense Department to buy U.S. made sneakers, Rep. Michaud said. Sen. Susan Collins, a Republican from Maine, said: "The president keeps saying he wants to promote American manufacturing. Well, here's a chance."

A White House spokesman referred questions about the matter to the Defense Department.

Most U.S. shoe factories closed in recent decades as production shifted to Asia. Imports account for about 99 percent of the U.S. market, according to trade group Footwear Distributors and Retailers of America. The U.S. footwear industry employed only about 14,000 people as of mid-2013, down from more than 40,000 in 1997.

Boston-based New Balance, owned by James S. and Anne Davis, is the only U.S. maker of athletic shoes with large-scale production in the U.S. Its five U.S. plants in Massachusetts and Maine make about 25 percent of its shoes sold in the U.S.; the rest are imported.

New Balance spokesman Matt LeBretton said the company has spent more than $1 million on equipment and training to produce the midsole, which is normally imported. Orders from the military could create 200 jobs at New Balance, which employs about 2,900 in the U.S., and more at suppliers, he said.

The armed forces give recruits stipends of about $65 to $70 to spend on athletic shoes, though sometimes it makes them buy a particular brand. LeBretton said New Balance could supply shoes in that range. "This might actually save them a few bucks," he said.

New Balance does sell some of its imported or partially U.S.-made shoes through military outlets, but wants the military to buy 100 percent U.S.-made sneakers, which would give it an edge.

Late on a recent Tuesday evening, buses dropped off new recruits for boot camp at Naval Station Great Lakes, just north of Chicago. The would-be sailors were presented with new military-standard clothing, from T-shirts, underwear and socks to a pair of custom-fitted New Balance running shoes that come in a box bearing an American flag.

Petty Officer First Class Andrew Purchase, 33 years old, watched Navy recruits try on running shoes. He has been running in New Balance since high school and said he likes the fit. It's "an added bonus," he said, when they are from an American company. "It's not 100 percent American-made, but most of it is," he said.

In the other room, Airman Noah Edwards, 19, who recently finished boot camp and was helping recruits determine their best shoe sizes, had a less philosophical approach to military running shoes. "I got issued what I got issued," he said.

Wolverine, based in Rockford, Mich., and known for its Hush Puppies and Keds brands, makes most of its shoes overseas.

But Wolverine has a plant in Big Rapids, Mich., which produces Bates combat boots, among other things. That plant could make sneakers, said spokesman David Costello. Sales of such shoes to the military would help Wolverine and other firms sustain a base in the U.S., he said.

Tom Capps, president and majority owner of Capps Shoe, in Lynchburg, Va., said the U.S. should avoid being entirely dependent on Asian shoe supplies in case it ever has "an altercation with the Chinese."

The military still has to be persuaded that U.S. shoe companies can ensure all recruits get the right fit and style. Wayne Hall, an Army spokesman, cited the stresses soldiers undergo during long runs at boot camp.

Rep. Niki Tsongas, a Massachusetts Democrat, said the domestic suppliers can provide a good range of shoes. For soldiers whose needs couldn't be met with American-made shoes, she said, waivers could be granted.

Orders from the military wouldn't bring the U.S. shoe industry back to its former glory, but they could be significant. Rep. Tsongas estimated that the military had spent more than $180 million on cash allowances for new recruits to buy sneakers since 2002.

Each year about 47,000 recruits come through the Naval Station Great Lakes, for example, and all of them get a pair of sneakers.

Petty Officer First Class Thelma Ruiz, a 38-year-old instructor who trains Navy recruits at the base near Chicago, prefers American-made shoes, but said what matters is that shoes fit well and perform. "Good shoes are good shoes," she said.

More from The Wall Street Journal

Mar 6, 2014 5:22PM
Another boondoggle paid for by the US Taxpayer - I did find it interesting Sen. Susan Collins, Republican, advocates Obama to support American manufacturing but Rep. Michaud, Democrat, advocates the use of Executive Order as an end run around the Dept of Defense and Congress. 
Mar 6, 2014 5:37PM
We never had no athletic shoes back in the day in Navy boot camp. In 1965 we wore a short boot (Boondockers) and leggings, from dawn to sunset. We didn't need no lousy sneakers.
Mar 6, 2014 9:40PM
Huh!!!! We did PT in combat boots or chukkas, even the mile run. They don't need sneakers.
Mar 7, 2014 12:11AM

Actually they should do PT, Runs or any training in only a couple of different boots...

You don't wear tennis shoes in the Desert or Jungles....Or any Combat that I know of..

Mar 6, 2014 7:59PM
They are already buying athletic shoes..nothing new there... might as well buy shoes that support our economy.

personally I only buy new balance anyway. they're not ALL made in the USA but none of the others are.

Mar 6, 2014 9:02PM
If it was ladies shoes Imelda Marcos could help us out.
Mar 6, 2014 6:50PM
When I was stationed overseas 1985-87, I purchased a pair of German made insulated boots at the military clothing store on post. I wore my spit shined jump boots for formation and basic training pairs for warmer weather and when in the field. Now while going through AIT at Ft. Bliss, I saw the Marines out running in their boots.
Mar 10, 2014 10:52AM
You know quality of shoes has really gone to crap with all this foreign made goods. I would really like to see more US made shoes not just for the military either
Mar 6, 2014 4:52PM

Well taxpayers....get your checkbooks come $400/pair military sneakers

Mar 6, 2014 5:55PM
Well, these boots are made for walking and that's just what they'll do, One of these days, these boots are gonna walk all over you democrats. Drop kick all of them!
Mar 6, 2014 8:19PM
If they are size twelves to be planted between Obama's back pockets.
Mar 7, 2014 10:30AM
How weak has America, under Obama, become that we even need to think about a 'shoe reserve'?

Did we run out of leather?   Did we forget the technology of how to build a shoe?   Did our last combat boot factory close?

What next, a uniform reserve?  A Helmet reserve?  Obama has been building an ammo reserve, DHS has over 16,000 rounds per employee!  And they keep buying more.  

Our government must be expecting some heavy duty action here in America.   The average citizen better upgrade their weapons and stock ammo high and deep, so we can assist against the foreign invaders they are expecting...  or maybe against our own government...  
Mar 7, 2014 12:05PM
Mar 10, 2014 3:34PM

funny how the rich man wants his greedy hands on anything to do with the govt but then turn around and condemn the govt when they put the squeeze on em for corruption or take away incentives from the rich

Mar 6, 2014 6:56PM
What's wrong with this system is that those inside and outside the political arena can't seem to
understand that defense contracts are not jobs programs and should never be treated as such.
They should also not be used as political bargaining chips as was the case of the F-35 which
doubled the cost of the program because every senator and congressman had his hand out
trying to grab a piece of the action for his home district.
Competition, especially foreign, forces efficiency and quality of product.
I remember having to use an M16  rifle which is the worst POS  ever made.  I longed for a Sig 550,  HK , Steyr, or FN . I regret having served in the military because of this.
If a man is going to lay his life on the line he deserves the best weaponry and equipment available
and the taxpayer the best deal regardless of where its made.
It is the republitards who have been most notorious for this kind of chicanery, especially when
one is in the White House.
Mar 6, 2014 5:48PM
yup American corporations want to make sure they overcharge for the shoes to why u think they wanted it mandatory to have them made here !!!! just like over paying for hammers staples and anything else they greedy corporations want the fed to pay for !!!! which is us tax payers paying for over priced shoes
Mar 6, 2014 5:52PM
the govt needs to build and make their own products , building roads etc ... cut the rich out of the budget !!! would save a lot of money that way !!!!
Mar 7, 2014 11:52AM

Mirage guy;What are you smoking?We have STRONG President that backed down Syria,

backed down Iran and will handle Russia.If you lived in the real world you`ll realize what

a fine President we have.Plus, most of us have doubled our money in 5 years.Household

WEALTH IS AT AN ALL TIME RECORD HIGH.If you were smart you`ld thank Obama.

Mar 6, 2014 6:00PM

Bullshidt, just tell the new 'cruits to bring a couple pair of tennies with them to Basic or AIT.

Most of them probably have about 10 pair...

Or let them buy them at 50% off retail, at the PX, with a voucher.

Forget about the old crap of everyone wearing the same tennis shoe, that's asinine...

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