On April 1, a U.S. Navy official told reporters that he will protect the profit margins of defense contractors by accelerating contract awards during the COVID-19 crisis.
“As individual suppliers and industrial operations deal with their local situation, they can do it knowing that they’ve got work ready to go … as soon as they’re ready to go at their capacity,” said James Geurts, Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Research, Development and Acquisition, via teleconference. The goal, he said, is to “ensure these companies have the work, they know the work is coming, the employees know the work is coming, the lenders know the work is coming, and the work is actually sitting there” once the outbreak ends.
This ethos — that financial support should be mobilized to protect the bottom lines of companies like Boeing, Raytheon and Lockheed Martin — has undergirded much of the Department of Defense’s response to the COVID-19 crisis. Military officials, with the help of Congress and defense industry lobbying groups, have fought to ensure that tanker and missile manufacturing sites remain open, even if it means putting workers at risk of infection,and that cash keeps flowing into the coffers of CEOs and shareholders.
This support is going to an industry that is being deemed “essential” during the COVID-19 crisis. But by the Pentagon’s own admission, the goal is to continue business as usual — i.e. maintain the U.S. military apparatus. That the weapons industry is being kept afloat at a time healthcare systems, and millions of ordinary Americans, are sinking, reveals a great deal about the militaristic bent of our government — and the political muscle of the companies that profit from it. As Shireen Al-Adeimi, a Yemeni-American anti-war activist, writer and scholar, put it to In These Times, “Even at a time of vulnerability at home, we’re still thinking about ways to expand our military and to show our imperial militaristic dominance across the globe.”
The accelerated Navy contracts aren’t the only life raft the military industry has been tossed. On March 22, the Department of Defense released its Deviation on Progress Payments memo, which decrees that “once in contracts, the progress payment rate that contracts can get paid for will increase from 80% of cost to 90% for large businesses and from 90% to 95% for small businesses.” The measure is aimed at directing millions of dollars into the coffers of defense companies. Or, as DOD spokesman Lt. Col. Mike Andrews put it, it’s “an important avenue where industry cash flow can be improved.”
This change was made, in part, as a result of the advocacy of Maine’s entire congressional delegation, which sent a letter on March 19 urging the Secretary of Defense, Mark Esper — himself a former lobbyist for Raytheon — to “take any actions possible to accelerate or advance payments or new contract obligations in order to provide immediate stability to the industrial base.” The lawmakers were concerned about Bath Iron Works, a General Dynamics shipyard and manufacturing hub for the Navy, located in Maine.
The “deviation on progress payments” memo won glowing praise from industry titans, including the National Defense Industrial Association and the Aerospace Industries Association. But perhaps the strongest praise came from Lockheed Martin, which said on its official Twitter account, “We applaud @DeptofDefense for leading by example during COVID-19 crisis with enhanced progress payments targeted for small businesses. Lockheed Martin will do the same by flowing these funds to our supply chain partners vital in supporting U.S. men & women in uniform.”
Lockheed Martin is the manufacturer of the bomb that was used by the U.S.-Saudi coalition to strike a school bus in northern Yemen on August 9, 2018, killing 40 children between the ages of six and 11, and wounding a total of 79 people. Just as the cash has continued flowing to this company, the U.S-Saudi coalition has continued launching air strikes on Yemen. On March 30, the U.S.-Saudi coalition launched several air strikes in Sanaa, with residents reporting loud explosions throughout the city. This was despite the U.N.’s call days earlier for a truce in light of the global pandemic, and despite warnings that five years of air strikes targeting infrastructure and hospitals have left Yemen highly vulnerable to a potential COVID-19 outbreak.
“It’s not enough that we’ve created the world’s worst humanitarian crisis,” says Al-Adeimi. “If COVID-19 entered Yemen right now it would spell disaster. Everything else can shut down except for war, apparently.”
As the vast majority of people in the United States are being told to stay at home, weapons manufacturers are allowed to keep their doors open. On March 20, the Department of Defense declared the “Defense Industrial Base” to be essential work during the COVID-19 crisis after, as the DOD put it, working closely with “the Hill and the Department of Homeland Security.” According to the Under Secretary of Defense, Ellen Lord, the Defense Industrial Base is defined as “the worldwide industrial complex that enables research and development as well as design, production, delivery and maintenance of military weapons systems/software systems, subsystems, and components or parts, as well as purchased services to meet U.S. military requirements.”
This amounts to guidance, not a federal mandate, prompting weapons industry CEOs to demand even more. The Aerospace Industries Association wrote a letter to Secretary Esper, signed by the CEOs of Northrop Grunman, Raytheon and others. The letter said “the federal government should legally establish national security programs and our workforce as essential.”
These are the same CEOs who have kept their plants running, even amid reports that some workers are testing positive for COVID-19. In These Times spoke with an employee of a company that contracts with Lockheed Martin by providing development and testing for software used on Navy ships. The worker, who requested anonymity to protect against retaliation and is not represented by a union, is continuing to show up to work even after someone in job site was recently diagnosed with COVID-19.
He says he’s worried he is at risk of becoming infected. “We are not able to maintain social distancing,” he said. “There are no dividers between desks or anything. There are three or four feet between people. They’ve increased the amount of cleaning they’re doing. They’ve brought in plastic dividers. They’re trying to mitigate things, but in the environment we’re in, it could spread pretty quickly.”
Khury Petersen-Smith, a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies, told In These Times, “To the extent that we have any health system in this country, it’s more or less immediately failing. Whole sections of the economy just failed in the matter of weeks. And yet the systems of militarization are robust.”
Union leaders of the Local S6 chapter of the Industrial Union of Marine and Shipbuilding Workers of America, representing Bath Iron Works’ workforce, put it succinctly in an open letter to the vice president of General Dynamics: “It seems as though the company is willing to use its workforce as sacrificial Lambs to meet the needs of our customer.”
According to Mandy Smithberger of the Project On Government Oversight, there is no indication that the “increased cash flow” or essential industry decree come with any conditions that companies must protect workers — and there is nothing to prevent profits gleaned during the pandemic from going straight to CEOs and shareholders. She believes the same holds true for a defense industry giveaway included in the $2 trillion CARES stimulus package that is likely earmarked for Boeing and other companies. As the Washington Post explains, “The Senate package includes a $17 billion federal loan program for businesses deemed ‘critical to maintaining national security.’ The provision does not mention Boeing by name but was crafted largely for the company’s benefit, two of the people said. Other firms could also receive a share of the money, one of the people said. The people spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive internal deliberations.”
While this program fell short of Boeing’s request for a $60 billion bailout, it’s nonetheless a hefty consolation prize. It came just weeks after President Trump said at a March 17 press conference, “So, we’ll be helping Boeing.”
Boeing is just one of the companies that makes the United States the top weapons exporter in the world—by far. According to Petersen-Smith, that weapons manufacturers are still open for business is an indicator of a much larger trend. “I would argue the United States is on a more aggressive footing than a month ago. It has increased sanctions on Iran. Whereas a few months ago it had taken away its aircraft carrier stationed near Iran, now it has deployed two aircraft carriers. It has deployed ships to the caribbean to be more aggressive to Venezuela. It has cut humanitarian aid to Yemen — actively cut it.”
“The prioritizing of weapons manufacturing is part of prioritizing the military in general,” he continued, echoing the concerns of anti-war organizations that are calling for the Pentagon’s budget to be reallocated to meet immediate needs of people suffering from the outbreak and subsequent economic crash. “There is very little attention to militarism domestically in this country, but amid this crisis there is even less conversation about what the United States is doing abroad.”
While U.S. military aggression should be opposed in its own right — because of the direct harm it causes to the people facing bombings, sanctions and intimidation — it also makes the whole world more vulnerable to the COVID-19 outbreak, given the global nature of the pandemic. The same executives who profit from war when we are not going through an unprecedented epidemiological event are now lining their pockets by insisting theirs is the industry that must never cease, even as it makes many places in the world far more susceptible to COVID-19 — a virus that, like America’s ongoing was, will not stop at the water’s edge.
Juan Caicedo contributed research to this piece.
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Sarah Lazare is the editor of Workday Magazine and a contributing editor for In These Times. She tweets at @sarahlazare.