End of the Line

February 5, 2014 Topic: EconomicsDefenseSecurity Region: United States

End of the Line

We don't need so many big arms factories.

The American defense industry is changing dramatically. This year will mark the first closure in the United States of a privately owned military shipyard, aircraft assembly facility or armored vehicle line since the end of the Cold War. The Avondale Shipyard in New Orleans, once owned by Northrop Grumman and now by Huntington Ingalls Industries, will soon stop making warships. The Boeing C-17 transport line in Long Beach, California—the old Douglas Aircraft plant—is slated to close in 2015 without new orders from the Air Force or foreign governments. Two Boeing fighter aircraft lines in St. Louis, originally McDonnell Douglas products, the F-18 and F-15 run out of orders in 2016 and 2018 respectively. The tank plant in Lima, Ohio, run for the Army by General Dynamics, and the heavy-track-vehicle line in York, Pennsylvania, owned by BAE Systems, are also in jeopardy.

You might wonder why it has taken this long to get to this point. The Cold War, after all, has been over for more than two decades. During the Cold War lines closed all the time when they disappointed their armed-service customers. After the Cold War, however, they became wards of the state, often financially supported with make-work projects to preserve jobs at the behest of Congressional protectors and corporate owners. It was easier to close public shipyards and arsenals, which had long been confined to repair or components work, than it was to take on the main weapon platform facilitates, the home ports of political favoritism (or “pork,” as it better known). The pattern of preserving lines will be hard to break. Expect some bitter fights to keep certain assembly facilities open, especially when competition in particular weapon markets appears threaten as with the closure of Boeing’s St. Louis fighter-aircraft lines.

But warfare and politics have changed. Precision weapons reduce the need for large numbers of weapon platforms to achieve the same military impact. Gone are the massed aircraft attacks of World War II, Korea or Vietnam hoping to knock out a ball-bearing factory or a bridge. Today, if located, targets are certain to be destroyed by a very small number of weapons. Remotely piloted aircraft or satellites now most often perform reconnaissance. Fleets chase pirates and armies insurgents more than each other these days. And after decades of building them, the American military finds that it has more fighter aircraft and more armored vehicles than it needs.

Seeking pork is becoming less acceptable in American politics. Tea Party members want to drive out of office Republicans who came to feel comfortable with using the federal budget as a way to assure favor back in their district. Although Democrats are unwilling to go completely kosher, they prefer to use defense dollars for social programs which are not district specific. Pork-like projects still exist tucked into the corners of budgets, unheralded except to the interests who arranged them. The biggest porkers though have retired or passed on. There is to be a USS John P. Murtha (LPD-26), named for the recently deceased defense appropriations subcommittee chair who openly stuffed his district with stuff other Americans paid for. But neither the Navy nor the Congress will likely make many more like him or his namesake.

Attention is shifting to what production capacity should be preserved as defense budgets decline and threats recede. Wars are not out the question, though they are not likely to be fought by massed forces. If research in weapons is preserved at a relatively high level, very little else needs to be subsidized to ensure that America can meet whatever military challenges that lie ahead. America is still one of the largest manufacturing nations in the world, which means it can close most current military-platform assembly lines and still have the capability to mobilize for future wars. And anyway, it is the electronics of weapons—their insides—that counts most these days, and America remains the innovation leader in high technology.

To be sure, there are certain specialties such as torpedoes, nuclear weapons and radar-evading coatings that lack commercial analogies, and thus require subsidization to preserve unique design and manufacturing skills, but the United States stands ready to clear away most of the weapon lines that were long kept producing by politics and the fear of a Cold War returning. Retraining grants are needed to aid the transition of workers and communities from building the weapons of the past. The Cold War production facilities seemed to have at last reached the end of their line. Though they served us well, it is time to move on.

Harvey M. Sapolsky is Professor Emeritus and former director of the MIT Security Studies Program, Cambridge, Massachusetts. Eugene Gholz is Associate Professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas in Austin.