As the World Economy Grinds to a Halt, the U.S. War Machine Churns On

Weapons manufacturers get a life raft while the rest of us drown.

Sarah Lazare April 6, 2020

A U.S. Air Force F-35A Lightening II performs at the Royal International Air Tattoo at RAF Fairford on July 13, 2018 in Fairford, Gloucestershire, England. (Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

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.

These are the same CEOs who have kept their plants running, even amid reports that some workers are testing positive for COVID-19.

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.

Sarah Lazare is web edi­tor at In These Times. She comes from a back­ground in inde­pen­dent jour­nal­ism for pub­li­ca­tions includ­ing The Inter­cept, The Nation, and Tom Dis­patch. She tweets at @sarahlazare.

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