Features » April 2, 2020
Is Building Missiles ‘Essential’? The U.S. Government Thinks So.
Some workers in the defense industry question why they’re required to stay on the job, and many are worried about safety.
“Every single day I am in a plant where 500-plus people have touched maybe the same part.”
On March 19, after the novel coronavirus had spread to all 50 states, the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA)—the branch of Homeland Security that oversees critical infrastructure—released a list of which sectors of the economy employ “the essential workers needed to maintain the services and functions Americans depend on daily.” The list includes mostly obvious essentials such as healthcare, food and agriculture, and wastewater management. It also includes another sector: workers in the defense industry.
Ellen Lord, top weapons buyer for the Department of Defense, wrote in a related March 20 memo that, “if your contract or subcontract supports the development, production, testing, fielding, or sustainment of our weapons systems/software systems, or the infrastructure to support those activities, [they] are considered Essential Critical Infrastructure.”
That broad designation has led to ongoing scenes inside the nation's military-industrial workplaces at odds with the new daily reality of millions of Americans, more than three-fourths of whom are in places with stay-at-home orders.
“Every single day I am in a plant where 500-plus people have touched maybe the same part,” says Brad Richardson, a product technician responsible for precision cleaning at United Launch Alliance in Decatur, Ala. The company, a joint venture of Lockheed Martin and Boeing, makes rockets that launch satellites into space, including one used in the inaugural mission of the military’s new Space Force on March 26. Richardson doesn’t single out his company for criticism—there are “tons of companies and people that are in the same boat that I am”—but he calls the continuation of hands-on factory work “contradictory” in light of countrywide efforts to slow the spread of the virus.
“My wife and kids are at home because they can't work or go to school,” Richardson says. “My church is closed. Tons of places are just shut down.” Richardson thinks his line of work could be suspended for a few weeks while “true essential things” such as healthcare and food provisions continue.
“We’re either doing this or we’re not,” he says of the national call for social distancing.
The designation of the defense workforce as “essential” poses a particular risk in places like northern Alabama, which hosts hundreds of defense contractors centered around Huntsville. More than 70,000 people work in defense and aerospace in the Huntsville metropolitan area, according to the local chamber of commerce.
Redstone Arsenal, home to the Missile Defense Agency and a hub for the region's robust missile and rocket-production economy, had 13 confirmed COVID-19 cases among employees as of March 27. The daily workforce on the Arsenal has been reduced from about 44,000 to fewer than 19,000, a top commander said at a March 26 video town hall. “We will continue to reduce that,” said the commander. The Alabama Department of Public Health reported 105 cases and one death from COVID-19 in Madison County, which surrounds the Arsenal, as of April 1.
Still, work is ongoing on military-industrial shop floors across the region.
“Every company is claiming it's essential now,” says David Story, a top official in the state’s machinist union, who says he’s fielded “hundreds” of calls in recent weeks about workers’ rights during the pandemic. His union’s members across the state perform hands-on functions on a variety of projects deemed essential, such as on the Mars 2020 project, reconnaissance satellites, and repairs on Army vehicles returning from the Middle East. Story says a “small group” of employees have refused to work despite the Defense Department directive, and that the union is advocating for them to be spared disciplinary actions. A second group is vocal about not wanting to be at the workplace but also refusing to go home without pay, while a final group—he estimates this group is a “silent majority”—are “playing it day by day.”
Teresa Cryer, an aerospace wire harness technician at United Launch Alliance, says that in a time of widespread volatility, being deemed essential provides some welcome job security.
“The more I thought about it, the more blessed I was that I had a job that they did feel is essential,” says Cryer, who is 62 and has worked at ULA more than 17 years. “I probably wouldn't take off work until they tell me to.”
One former Pentagon insider well versed in the department’s priorities has criticized the Defense Department’s directive. Frank Kendall, a former Pentagon official who oversaw technology acquisition and is now a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, argues that the current guidance is “very broad” and “most of the work that's being done for the government could be delayed without a very severe impact.” He thinks there needs to be more emphasis on steps to protect the workforce, which, he says, makes sense from both a humanitarian and business perspective. “A lot of [contractor employees] are very highly skilled defense workers in short supply,” he says.
Kendall thinks a much narrower range of functions could be defined as essential—for example, ones that support ongoing operations, such as airplane maintenance for the Afghan air force and logistical support to deployed troops. Activities like major long-term weapons projects can be slowed down to accommodate health-related constraints, generally without stopping work altogether, Kendall says.
“We are at war with this virus,” Kendall says. “I think protecting our people comes first.”
In These Times submitted questions about operations during COVID-19 to four major defense contractors in Northern Alabama, all among the region’s largest recipients of Defense Department funds. A spokesperson for Boeing, which has 3,062 employees statewide, wrote its sites are “operating under guidelines in accordance with local or national government mandates.” The spokesperson declined to answer whether Boeing’s work on a major long-term weapons project in the Huntsville area—a modernized intercontinental ballistic missile meant to enter the nuclear arsenal by the late 2020s—was ongoing despite the project’s long timeline.
Similarly, Lockheed Martin didn’t comment on whether operations were ongoing on hypersonic missile development in Huntsville and nearby Courtland. The project, according to a Lockheed press release, is “multi-year.”
Rocket manufacturer United Launch Alliance said the company is “deep cleaning our facilities daily,” is “disinfecting hard surfaces throughout the day,” and has “modified certain operations to reduce personnel density.”
Spokespeople for Northrop Grumman did not respond.
All three companies that responded said that some workers were teleworking but none gave an estimate of how much of their Huntsville-area workforce was doing so.
Chris Mullins, an aerospace assembly technician who continues to report to his plant, says he feels “torn” over the federal government's order, which places his family in a high-pressure situation: Every working-age person in his household has been declared essential, including his wife in banking and his daughter in healthcare.
“When I think about the role of our plant helping with America's war fighters and our nation's defense and NASA, of course I think that we are essential,” Mullins says, though he also wonders whether it would be helpful for his company to take two weeks off during the pandemic. “Some companies have a vested national interest in the government and we're one of them. And somebody made the decision for us to continue working.”
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Taylor Barnes is an Atlanta-based journalist who covers militarism, conflict, dissent and foreign affairs.
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