WASHINGTON — Like everyone else in America, the defense industry is still reeling from how quickly the new coronavirus, known as COVID-19, went from a potential issue to a city-shuttering pandemic.
But as major economic hubs like San Francisco and New York City struggle with curfews and restrictions on public gatherings, companies — and the Defense Department — still appear to be sorting out if any shutdowns related to work are imminent.
The fluid nature of the situation is reflected in a series of industry statements, captured below by Defense News reporters. In many cases, when contacted by reporters and asked directly if any production lines were being slowed or halted by the attempt to reduce the rate of infection, spokespeople responded with general comments about challenges with the disease.
That’s not a huge surprise to Byron Callan, an analyst with Capital Alpha Partners, who noted that there are many moving parts for companies to work through.
“Maybe it’s too soon for a lot of these guys,” Callan said. “When you think about it, we’re into the second week of this [as a national emergency]. By the time they do earning calls in April, they should definitely have a better grip on what’s happened in the last few weeks and what might they be looking at.”
That could potentially include anything from supply chain issues to delays in delivery of defense articles to a massive bailout of the commercial aerospace industry and issues with pension requirements, Callan warned.
“It’s like a giant rock you drop in a lake. It’s got all these waves. The people who work in restaurants or hotels are the ones feeling it immediately, but it’s going to wash up and ripple through all these sectors, and we just don’t know how or when the impact will be,” Callan said. “You’re pilling up unknowns and unknowns here.”
Todd Harrison of the Center for Strategic and International Studies noted that the design of modern production spaces shouldn’t preclude people being able to work there, noting that for “a lot of those manufacturing jobs, they’re set up, and the way a lot of people are doing work, they have adequate social distancing anyway."
“If you’ve been in these facilities, they’re not like sweatshops where people are in crowded, unventilated areas. It’s pretty spread out, and a lot of the jobs in defense manufacturing are basically operating machinery,” he said. “I think what would be more affected would be the engineering and design functions, where the engineers tend to operate in more cubicle-like spaces — and you probably don’t want to be doing that right now.”
The Pentagon is also early in the process of getting a handle on what those impacts may look like.
The department’s top acquisitions official, Ellen Lord, has instituted a daily phone call with the Aerospace Industries Association, National Defense Industrial Association, Professional Services Council, National Association of Manufacturers, and Chamber of Commerce to “ensure the security, reliability and resilience of our defense-industrial base” and “and get feedback on COVID-19 impacts on industry,” according to a department spokesman.
The first call, which happened Tuesday, was chaired by Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Industrial Policy Jennifer Santos and included representatives from the Industrial Policy office, the Defense Contracting Management Agency, the Defense Logistics Agency, and the Defense Pricing and Contracting office.
One potentially vulnerable part of the defense-industrial base is the ongoing modernization of America’s nuclear arsenal, which the head of U.S. Strategic Command said last month is approaching a “point of no return” should there be even small delays in the upgrade effort.
On Tuesday, Capt. Bill Clinton, STRATCOM’s chief of public affairs, said the combatant command is “confident the services, along with industry partners, are able to keep production related to modernization of our nuclear forces on track, while taking appropriate precautions to keep their workforces safe and healthy. ... While our nation is working diligently to solve this acute public health crisis, I am confident we can continue modernizing our nuclear forces on time as planned.”
Over the past few days, Defense News reached out to a number of key defense players whose production lines could be impacted by the virus. Here is a collection of their responses:
BAE Systems spokeswoman Kelly Golden:
BAE Systems has robust business continuity plans which have been implemented and are under constant review as the situation evolves. We continue to ensure we are providing a safe work environment for our employees, customers and suppliers while minimizing impact to our operations. We have also asked our suppliers and contractors to implement measures that are consistent with those we have put in place to protect our employees.
Boeing spokesman Larry Chambers:
Boeing has issued updated guidance directing all employees who are able to perform their work from home effectively to telecommute until further notice. Some Boeing sites were already partially or fully operating under these guidelines in accordance with local or national government mandates.
Production continues at this time, and the company has enhanced cleaning procedures in work spaces, common areas and on high-touch surfaces. We’re assessing the safety of all of our sites and their alignment with local, state and national government guidance as we continuously monitor this evolving situation.
Leadership at each of our sites is working closely with their employees to implement the guidance, and will make all decisions necessary to follow evolving government direction and to ensure the health and wellbeing of their teams and communities.
Electric Boat spokeswoman Liz Power:
Electric Boat remains open for business. Our ongoing mission is to provide our Navy with the high-quality submarines they require to complete their missions. We have initiated all government-recommended measures to mitigate spread of the disease and continue to work closely with our employees, customers, suppliers, stakeholders and our community to keep them informed.
Fincantieri spokesman Eric Dent:
Fincantieri Marine Group has customers with important missions — naval and commercial — and together we’re dealing with the Coronavirus pandemic and working to prevent or reduce its impact to our mission and our people. So far, we have experienced no production delays. Obviously like other businesses and shipyards, we have to balance force health protection and production as we work through this.
We’ve taken several mitigating actions, such as extensive cleanings of common areas, scrutinizing the self-reported health of every guest or visitor in the yard, eliminating all but critical travel outside the local area. In some circumstances, we are encouraging employees to work from home if possible. Through this all, we continue to reinforce the need for stringent personal hygiene and social distancing protocols, as well as eliminating large gatherings. We continue communicating with our employees so they understand the importance of their health is to us and their families, and if they exhibit symptoms or are caring for someone with flu-like symptoms, they should not risk the potential spread of it and stay home in accordance with our personnel policies.
We suspended all international travel Mar. 4, and all non-critical domestic travel on Mar. 9. We suspended intracompany travel Mar. 13, to reduce the chance of exposure across multiple Fincantieri shipyards in Wisconsin.
General Dynamics Land Systems:
We are open for business. Our ongoing mission is to provide our Soldiers with the critical platforms and capabilities that they require to complete their mission. We have initiated all government-recommended measures to mitigate spread of the disease and continue to work closely with our employees, customers, suppliers, stakeholders and our community to keep them informed.
Huntington Ingalls Industries spokeswoman Beci Brenton:
At HII we are taking actions that are designed with the health and safety of our employees at the forefront of our decision making, and this extends across the enterprise. We are having multiple meetings 24/7 with leadership and diligently monitoring the ever changing situation, as well as following CDC’s guidelines. This is rapidly evolving and some measures are division specific while others are universal. [HII has put a video statement from its CEO online addressing several issues.]
Lockheed Martin spokesman Trent Perrotto
As we monitor global developments we continue to use best practices to mitigate risks related to Coronavirus (COVID-19).
The health and well-being of our employees and partners is our top priority. Across Lockheed Martin, employees with potential exposure are instructed to work remotely and self-quarantine. We have provided guidance to employees and their managers to accommodate flexible work schedules and alternative arrangements where possible. We continue to follow travel guidance from the U.S. government and other countries where we do business, and are limiting all other international and domestic travel unless necessary for business. We also pre-screen visitors to company locations and limit guests to ensure visits are necessary for business. When the circumstances warrant, we deep clean work areas and common spaces in any facility with elevated exposure to COVID-19 and regularly share exposure-prevention protocols to reinforce healthy behaviors.
Additionally, we are mitigating any potential impacts to customers and implementing business continuity plans as required, including secure telework for our customer support teams. There are no specific impacts to our operations or supply chain at this time. We will continue to monitor and coordinate with customers should issues arise.
Northrop Grumman spokesman Tim Paynter:
We continue to closely monitor this rapidly evolving situation so we can quickly address concerns and impacts to our employees, operations and customers, and we are ready with contingency plans as the situation continues to develop.
The safety and well-being of our employees is our top priority and we are continuing to provide our employees as much information as possible.
We are taking additional steps to protect the well-being of our employees, including halting travel, limiting non-essential visitors to work environments, reducing density and increasing separation distance where possible, providing personal hand sanitizers and cleaning our workplaces on a daily basis and disinfecting as needed.
Oshkosh Defense spokeswoman Alexandra Hittle:
Oshkosh Defense is committed to preventing the spread of COVID-19 and is closely following the Center of Disease Control’s (CDC) guidelines and recommendations. The safety and wellbeing of our team members and our customers is of the utmost importance, therefore we have taken critical steps to ensure we are taking care of our people while maintaining continuity of operations.
Raytheon spokesman John Patterson:
We are actively monitoring the COVID-19 pandemic and have taken a variety of immediate steps to ensure the safety and wellbeing of our employees. This includes domestic and international travel restrictions, restrictions on face to face meetings, and new work-from-home and social distancing protocols in all our facilities.
Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.
Valerie Insinna is Defense News' air warfare reporter. She previously worked the Navy/congressional beats for Defense Daily, which followed almost three years as a staff writer for National Defense Magazine. Prior to that, she worked as an editorial assistant for the Tokyo Shimbun’s Washington bureau.
Jen Judson is the land warfare reporter for Defense News. She has covered defense in the Washington area for 10 years. She was previously a reporter at Politico and Inside Defense. She won the National Press Club's best analytical reporting award in 2014 and was named the Defense Media Awards' best young defense journalist in 2018.
David B. Larter was the naval warfare reporter for Defense News.