In recent years, the business of outfitting the troops — by law the military has to try to buy American — has grown in importance for a cadre of U.S. mills and apparel makers, many of which covet military orders as a cushion against a fashion business lost to low-priced import competition.
In times of war, military wardrobe needs can change and increase, which for the Iraqi conflict means adding desert camouflage battle uniforms, as well as hats, anti-chemical garb and rucksacks, which were not stockpiled in sufficient quantities before the war’s start.
The military in many ways functions like a small department store, where its customers — soldiers in the various services — are given a $760 to $1,100 annual clothing allowance.
The Iraqi conflict is expected to generate U.S. apparel business in excess of the $1.6 billion in fiscal year 2003 funds allocated for regular peacetime needs to outfit the 1.5 million-person U.S. armed services. There are 270,000 troops deployed in the Iraqi conflict and their wardrobe needs will be tied to the conflict’s length and duration of U.S. occupation. In addition, there are also 10,000 troops still in Afghanistan, following last year’s conflict there.
"Right now, we really don’t have figures" on the number of new orders, said a spokesman for the Defense Logistics Agency, the military’s buying arm. "But I can say there are a lot of orders that will probably push that number."
Last week, Congress signed off $78 billion to be spent on the Iraqi conflict, $4.24 billion of which is targeted for procurement, or supplies for the troops, including battle garb.
Companies competing for military contracts are large and small, which also, by law, have to compete with federal prison factories, operating as Federal Prison Industries. Much to the dismay of the U.S. apparel industry’s dwindling ranks, contracts from prisons are required by Congress to be given preference, making the entity the largest military apparel supplier with $44.7 million in 2003 contracts thus far. Other non-industry competitors given contract preferences include number-two military apparel supplier the National Center for Employment of the Disabled, with $44.5 million in contracts this government fiscal year. Goodwill Industries and the National Industries for the Blind are also apparel producers.