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Defense industry on sidelines, for now, during pandemic fight

Andrew Clevenger, CQ-Roll Call on

Published in News & Features

WASHINGTON -- The defense industry has high-tech production lines sprinkled around the country and a skilled workforce that has been deemed essential during the COVID-19 pandemic, factors that would seemingly make it a candidate for building desperately needed ventilators and personal protective equipment.

But Pentagon contractors are, for now, sticking to what they do best: making weapons.

In March, defense contractors were designated "essential" workers, allowing them to keep reporting to their jobs in spite of various shutdowns and closures imposed by state and local authorities. And President Donald Trump has formally invoked the Defense Production Act to instruct General Motors to start making ventilators.

But at this point, the federal government has not asked the sprawling defense industrial base, which includes giants like Boeing Co. and Lockheed Martin Corp., to switch over to making products directly related to dealing with the COVID-19 outbreak.

That is, at least in part, because the most direct way for defense contractors to contribute to national security is to manufacture and maintain the military's weapons and equipment, said Arnold Punaro, a retired Marine Corps general and the incoming chairman of the National Defense Industrial Association.

"Our companies are forward leaning, they want to work," Punaro said.


But, he acknowledged, concerns over the safety and well-being of the workforce can cause interruptions. Last month, some employees at Bath Iron Works, a shipbuilder in Maine, stayed home to compel ownership to do more to disinfect the facility, and aerospace giant Boeing closed operations at its Puget Sound facilities because of the COVID-19 hotspot in Seattle.

There are also practical realities keeping the defense industry focused on business as usual.

Factories and shipyards that build stealth fighters and nuclear submarines are not well suited for suddenly making protective equipment for medical workers. And those factories rely on thousands of smaller subcontractors to keep their production lines humming, taking many of those firms out of the business of COVID-19 response.

Take out one link in a supply chain, and the whole thing might come grinding to a halt.


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