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Chaos, Cash and COVID-19: How the Defense Industry Survived — and Thrived — During the Pandemic

U.S. Air Force leaders faced a dilemma. The service needed a key raw material from Italy for one of its critical nuclear modernization programs. But in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, as industrial facilities shut down and transit between nations slowed, it was unclear how the material could reach the United States.

Air Force officials were so worried that they eventually authorized military aircraft to fly to Italy to pick up the remaining supply in person, averting an interruption in one of the nation’s most strategic weapons programs.

According to Will Roper, who led Air Force acquisition efforts under the Trump administration, the ordeal was one example of when the Pentagon had to make a “worst-case scenario call” to protect the U.S. military’s technological edge as COVID-19 threatened the defense-industrial base. This sense of urgency would prove common over the next year.

As the pandemic spread, the reality of having a global supply chain that featured a number of small, sole-source suppliers, as well as an aging industrial workforce, collided into a calamity — one that threatened to irreparably damage the American defense industry.

“I had moments in March, getting up at 3 o’clock in the morning and wondering what crisis was going to happen that day,” Roper said. “Just wondering, would we be able to keep the industrial base solvent to support military readiness and modernization?”

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