Randy Hollingsworth ensures the proper placement of holes on a M1 Abrams turret in Anniston Army Depot's Combat Vehicle Repair Facility.

Randy Hollingsworth ensures the proper placement of holes on a M1 Abrams turret in Anniston Army Depot's Combat Vehicle Repair Facility. Jennifer Bacchus / U.S. Army

Anti-COVID Measures Could Be Lasting In Army Weapons Factories 

"You can't run an assembly line from your desktop at home."

The Army’s weapons makers can expect to keep social distancing measures in place at least into next year, even if a coronavirus vaccine is available before the end of 2020.

Anti-virus practices, including positioning workers further apart and wearing masks, that have kept COVID at bay can also help prevent the spread of more common illnesses, like the season flu, said Bruce Jette, the Army’s assistant secretary for acquisition, logistics and technology. 

“Continuing to apply these same techniques would be further beneficial to the people and...to the Army overall,” Jette said Tuesday during the Association of the U.S. Army’s annual conference, which is being held online this year.

Such measures have proven successful in reducing the spread of seasonal viruses in South America. “You can attribute it to the application of the same type of things we're using for COVID,” he said.

While office workers have been working remotely since March, weapons factories have largely remained open throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. While some shuttered for weeks early on, most were able to remain operational after putting worker safety measures in place.

“In doing so, it's drastically reduced our exposure to COVID impacts [and]  our ability to execute work,” Jette said. “You can't run an assembly line from your desktop at home...it takes physical contact. Because of that, these changes have been important. I don't see us backing off of using these same techniques on a continuing basis, even as the vaccine continues to mature.”

About 60 percent of the more than 6,500 U.S. employees at Leonardo DRS have reported to work throughout the pandemic, while about 40 percent of the company continues to work remotely.

“We've been able to operate [at] essentially 99 percent capacity through this crisis,” said CEO Bill Lynn, former deputy defense secretary during the Obama administration, in an interview Tuesday.

Production delays earlier in the pandemic have improved, Jette said. He signaled out one exception: BAE Systems, which missed two Paladin howitzer deliveries due to coronavirus-related production delays.

“They've already caught one up, and they're looking to catch the other one up this month,” he said. “We're working hard to try and catch up where we missed anything.”

Brig. Gen. Vincent Malone, joint program executive officer for armaments and ammunition and the commanding general of Picatinny Arsenal, credited increased COVID testing in the United States for keeping  the Army’s contractor-operated munitions factories open and production lines running during the pandemic.

“Early on, [if[ there was an outbreak, that whole line was going to be quarantined,” Malone said. “Now they will test that particular line. And as results come back, and they're confident in the results, they will start to bring those employees back.”

Lynn said COVID tests are just one way the company is avoiding the virus, for now.

“We're relying heavily on distance and PPE masks,” he said. We use testing, but it's a tool. You can't use it as the only tool at this point. It might become more primary as it becomes more available, cheaper and more accurate.”