As Washington begins to draft another stimulus spending bill to combat coronavirus, the Pentagon needs a new plan to articulate its needs to lawmakers. Simply submitting unfunded lists whole cloth comes across as tone deaf and opportunistic. A better plan would be to focus on the health, safety and continuity of all the Pentagon’s workforce: uniformed, civilian and contractor.
Capitol Hill is (virtually) busy as ever these days, completing another injection of funds into the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act last week. Congress and the White House will now begin formulating a phase 4 bill. President Donald Trump and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi have indicated they would both like to see domestic infrastructure spending inside. Negotiations are just beginning, but this bill will open the spending aperture compared to the CARES Act.
For national defense, this legislation must focus on taking care of people and protecting jobs. Even as the U.S. military mobilizes to support the fight against COVID-19, the disease is hitting the Defense Department and its workforce much the same as the rest of America.
The first order of business is for the Pentagon to ensure health and wellness for service members, their families, civilians and contractors by encouraging safe and flexible work policies. The Pentagon will need additional funding to pay for COVID-19 support deployments, mitigate the effects of stop-movement orders, increase the availability of personal protective equipment and sanitation, and expand its IT infrastructure for telework.
Second, Congress and the Pentagon should provide financial assistance to the thousands of small businesses, subcontractors and suppliers to defense contractors building weapons, conducting maintenance or developing classified software. The defense-industrial base is built for maximum efficiency, not resiliency. Even seemingly minor production pauses of weeks are combining with broader quarantine restrictions to wreak havoc on program schedules.
While the Pentagon has many tools at its disposal — accelerating awards and progress payments as well as lifting contracting restrictions — the acquisition team simply cannot respond to this crisis without more resources available. Absent additional liquidity, contractors face the impossible choice between letting workers go or facing the reality that they will have no jobs to return to.
Small businesses and subcontractors are particularly vulnerable, as they have far less slack to respond to crises. Many live contract to contract, as indicated by a 2018 Department of Defense report on industrial base fragility. These small firms providing needed materials, labor and technology to companies designated as “essential” are struggling with COVID like everyone else. Their employees are either afraid to come to work out of fear of contraction and contagion, or they’re sick with the virus. The vicious cycle — where people want to work but can’t — means schedules slip. If there is no work, there is no revenue, which means layoffs.
Already around the country, a major defense contractor had to shut down two plants; a shipbuilder is struggling to get employees to show up; another defense firm has laid off employees; and still others can’t get to work because classified spaces are off limits.
To ensure workforces remain intact, lawmakers need to move quickly to pay contractors who cannot work because of COVID-19 effects, as delays are now averaging three months. Fixing this is as simple as measuring the impact of COVID-19 on contracts and ensuring a reasonable payment for that delay, which will be billions of dollars, according to acquisition czar Ellen Lord. It’s no different than legal remedies for “acts of God.”
Also, the DoD can consider a subset of its unfunded priorities list to get projects on contract that are executable very quickly and inject liquidity into the defense contractor workforce. These unfunded priorities run the gamut, from weapons production to software development. Similarly, there are always “incremental” projects that can be accelerated, like facilities sustainment and depot maintenance. Using unfunded priorities to inject liquidity into the defense-industrial base isn’t the ideal tool, but all options must be brought to bear to deal with this crisis.
The majority of defense dollars allocated to the big prime contractors go back out the door to their suppliers and vendors — many of which are small businesses. While many of the easiest financial levers to pull involve getting contracts to primes, Congress and the Pentagon need to emphasize that this money — whether it be new contracts, accelerated contracts or increased progress payments — must be passed on to major suppliers and subcontractors.
If the behemoths of defense industry don’t share the wealth and take care of their supply chain, there won’t be more money, contracts or authority for additional progress payments from Congress. Contractor leadership must take care of workers — including those of its vendors.
Lastly, Congress can provide Defense Production Act Title III funding to directly target injections of cash to the emergent needs of small businesses and subcontractors, including many up-and-coming innovative firms and single-source suppliers. So far, DPA funding has been focused on contracting for additional personal protective equipment, but the DPA was equally built to protect the defense-industrial base.
The industrial base was already hurt by the Budget Control Act, and it’s been busy rebuilding under Trump, only to get whacked again by COVID-19. Employees need to know the work is there, their safety is a priority and their jobs are safe. If the Pentagon and primes don’t take care of their suppliers and subcontractors, the defense-industrial base will contract again, losing crucial skills and talents permanently — and possibly seeing those companies bought up by China.
Mackenzie Eaglen is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute think tank.