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.

Taylor BarnesApril 2, 2020

Redstone Arsenal, an Alabama-based testing and development center for missiles and rockets, had 13 confirmed cases of COVID-19 among its employees as of March 27. (USACE)

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.

“Every single day I am in a plant where 500-plus people have touched maybe the same part.”

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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