Defense industrial base workers belong at home during this public health crisis
President Trump says that he wants people back at work by mid-April. He argues that greater numbers of people have died every year from influenza, and even from automobile accidents, than so far have died as a result of COVID-19.
On the other hand, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper has informed Department of Defense (DOD) personnel that they may anticipate teleworking for “weeks for sure, maybe months.” Esper actually went even further. He added that those who are able telework could expect to do so for “as long as necessary” and until the U.S. is “beyond the coronavirus crisis.” It may well be some time before the country is indeed “beyond” the ravages of this disease. Moreover, Esper has ordered a 60-day troop deployment freeze, which underscores his concern about preventing the virus’s spread.
Esper is spot-on, of course. There is no merit in risking people’s health in order to drive the stock market up a few more points. No one knows how long it will take until the virus is fully contained. Until then, only those whose presence at work is absolutely necessary, and who cannot work remotely, should be expected to leave the relative safety of their homes.
Esper’s announcement not only makes good sense, it is critical for military morale. Thousands of troops who are deployed abroad in harm’s way now carry the additional burden of concern for their loved ones. They are likely to be especially anxious if, as is often the case, their spouses or other family members who are employed by DOD are expected to show up for work. The heightened anxiety generated by concern over the spread of the virus could detract from the proficiency that troops would display on the battlefield. And it is generally agreed that in the absence of positive morale, the advantages that firepower or technology normally offer no longer will apply.
Moreover, concern for the health and welfare of DOD personnel should apply to contractors as well. Industrial workers, in particular, should not be coerced into showing up for work. Their health is as important as that of any other American. Forcing workers to show up on the job will wreck morale and, as with the military, distract them from their tasks. The result potentially will be defective weapons and systems, which not only will lead to delays and financial waste, but can only jeopardize the success of future military operations.
Several major defense contractors have begun to follow Esper’s lead. For example, Boeing, already reeling from its 737-Max debacle, nevertheless has announced that it is shutting down its factories that assemble the P-8 anti-submarine aircraft and the KC-46 tanker, even though assembly cannot be done remotely. Hopefully, other contractors, large and small, will follow suit.
The president has argued that it is critical to reignite the economy and that other potentially lethal diseases such as influenza have not stopped the economy in its tracks. Yet the federal government never before has authorized a lump sum of $2 trillion dollars in the face of any disease, or in response to any previous crisis. The coronavirus presents a unique challenge, and it is critical that second- and third-order consequences must be accounted for in any response to that challenge.
The secretary of Defense has set the right example with respect to DOD employees. It should be followed when addressing the needs of the defense industrial workforce, and those of all other sectors of the nation’s economy.
Dov S. Zakheim is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and vice chairman of the board for the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He was under secretary of Defense (comptroller) and chief financial officer for the Department of Defense from 2001 to 2004 and a deputy under secretary of Defense from 1985 to 1987.