You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation
Green Not Guns

Don’t Just Cut Defense Spending. Convert the Defense Industry Into a Green Powerhouse.

Arms manufacturers already produce electric vehicle components. Defense cuts could be paired with a transition plan to power a climate-friendly economy.

Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg/Getty Images
The USS San Antonio sits in dry dock at the BAE Systems Plc Norfolk Ship Repair facility in Norfolk, Virginia, in 2018.

At the site of an old IBM factory in Endicott, New York, workers are busy manufacturing hundreds of propulsion systems for a fleet of hybrid buses destined for New York City. It’s part of a push to transition the country’s largest public bus system from a diesel-fueled to a zero-emissions fleet by 2040. But in addition to helping build a green, decarbonized future for public transit, this company is also building parts for the military combat vehicles deployed in places like Ukraine, Israel, and South Korea.   

Endicott’s 1,300-worker facility is owned by the third-largest global arms manufacturer, BAE Systems. In addition to the HybriDrive propulsion system being used for Metropolitan Transit Authority buses, Endicott workers manufacture components of Howitzer armored vehicles and the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter jet.

This hybrid technology is a small-scale example of the conversion from military to civilian production. It’s a peculiar juxtaposition between two industries that may seem at odds with each other, but it also represents a potential intervention to a pressing manufacturing dilemma: the need to rapidly build and retool society to transition from an extractive to a regenerative economy.

BAE Systems acquired HybriDrive from Lockheed Martin in 1999, just months after Lockheed delivered a fleet of 125 hybrid buses to New York City Transit. According to a new report by the Costs of War Project at Brown University, “Toyota was figuring out regenerative braking for its Priuses around the same time,” but an engineering team leader claims “his shop at Lockheed got there first.” In a couple of years, Lockheed concluded that expansion into the civilian market was not a worthwhile pursuit and, along the way, supported what is now one of the largest hybrid bus fleets in the world.

Experts and activists have stressed the importance of cutting the defense budget to reduce the military’s carbon footprint and free up resources for initiatives like the Green New Deal. Less attention has been afforded to the millions of workers who make up the Pentagon’s supply chains. If the defense budget does get slashed, the reduction in arms manufacturing will displace these workers. Given the military’s position as both the world’s largest employer and its largest institutional emitter of greenhouse gases, a just transition should prioritize helping defense workers, who represent some of the nation’s top engineers, find green jobs as well.

The new Costs of War report released last week, authored by Miriam Pemberton, suggests reorienting the defense economy to civilian production to fight climate change. Both the case of Lockheed’s HybriDrive and the collapse of California’s aerospace industry, she argues, illuminate what could have been a fruitful post–Cold War transition. The Clinton administration had pledged a “peace dividend” aimed at redirecting Cold War spending to the civilian economy. But Clinton’s plan to transform the United States “from a defense to a domestic economic giant” never came to pass. 

The reasons for this had to do with austerity measures and fierce pushback from the Pentagon officials, arms corporations, and members of Congress who make up the “Iron Triangle.” By 1997, the administration cut defense spending by a third of its Cold War peak in 1989. Employment in the private defense industry dropped by 40 percent between 1987 and 1996. These losses accounted for nearly 5 percent of the manufacturing workforce. Ultimately, only $16.5 billion was directed to retraining workers and steering weapons manufacturers toward civilian production, while 85 percent of the defense savings went to reducing the deficit. 

In the absence of a vision for what would replace the national security state, the arms industry worked on dual-use technology to serve civilian and military purposes, turned to the export market, and consolidated. Since the 1990s, the number of prime contractors in aerospace and defense working directly with the Pentagon has dwindled from 51 to five due to a dizzying wave of mergers and acquisitions in the industry. With this new monopoly power, arms companies turned more of their attention to elected officials. “In addition to growing their teams of lobbyists and their campaign contributions,” Pemberton writes, “military contractors began embedding their subcontracting and supply chains even more widely and deeply across the American landscape.”

Lockheed’s trillion-dollar F-35 Joint Strike Fighter jet, which has economic ties to nearly every state, is an acute example of how contractors entrenched themselves in congressional districts nationwide. In the minds of our elected officials, defense spending has become synonymous with “jobs,” and cuts are a political third rail. Even Senator Bernie Sanders, who has voted “no” on most of the last decade’s defense budgets, helped bring the F-35 to Burlington, Vermont, in 2018. 

​​“It employs hundreds of people, it provides a college education for hundreds of people,” Sanders said in 2014. “So, for me, the question is not whether we have the F-35 or not: It is here. The question for me is whether it is located in Burlington, Vermont, or whether it is located in Florida.”

But there’s evidence that the F-35’s payoff in jobs is exaggerated. A 2014 analysis by arms industry researcher William Hartung argued that, while Lockheed claims to support 125,000 F-35-related jobs, the real figure is likely closer to 50,000 to 60,000.

Arms manufacturing plants don’t necessarily bring prosperity to the communities in which they’re located. In an analysis of 60 defense-dependent counties across the country, Pemberton finds that “in nearly half the cases, the poverty rates in these military contracting strongholds exceed the national average.” More research is needed to understand the full impact the defense sector has on the economy.

A second report published by the Costs of War Project last week shows just what a missed opportunity this is, not helping defense workers transition from war jobs to green jobs: All of the surveyed workers expressed concern over climate change and recognition that their industry contributes to it. The report’s researcher, Karen Bell, writes, “as long as their immediate economic and social interests are not threatened, the workers seemed to enthusiastically embrace the transition to sustainability, though they were more diverse in their opinions as to whether this should include arms conversion.”

Predictably, defense workers may not be ready to discard all arms manufacturing just yet: Some also defended the defense sector as “socially useful,” arguing that it keeps us safe. One president of a local defense trade union said, “I don’t care if [a politician is] for or against gun control, he supports defense spending. That’s your job. You can’t worry about guns, you can’t worry about abortion, you can’t worry about anything if you can’t put food on your table and a roof over your head. So that’s what I care about first and foremost.”

But models exist for converting war jobs to green jobs to avoid mass unemployment. In post–Cold War California, defense cuts and the collapse of the state’s aerospace industry in the wake of stricter air quality regulations prompted what Pemberton calls “the nation’s most creative and concerted effort to redirect its aerospace economy toward the national need for clean energy and transport technology.”

In 1990, Lockheed closed its plant in Burbank, California, and laid off 4,000 workers. Then-Representative Howard Berman turned to the peace dividend to devise a plan that would address both air pollution and dwindling defense jobs. With a modest amount of funding, Berman helped establish the nonprofit consortium CALSTART to incubate the state’s electric vehicle industry, and Lockheed’s shuttered Burbank facility would serve as its new headquarters. CALSTART opened its second incubator in the Alameda Naval Air Station in San Francisco a few years later and started testing electric cars in a hangar where F-15 fighter jets were being phased out.

Massive defense cuts alone will not result in a climate-centered civilian economy without a large-scale industrial policy that prioritizes low-carbon infrastructure. Earlier attempts to establish these kinds of programs, Pemberton notes, were held back by limited financing mechanisms and the absence of “the guaranteed market the Pentagon provides to its contractors.” The 2006 documentary Who Killed the Electric Car? explains how auto and oil companies worked to undercut the electric vehicle market in California just as it was taking off.

With recent legislation, including the CHIPS and Science Act, the Inflation Reduction Act, and the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, this administration has taken steps to create what Biden calls “good-paying union jobs” while investing in public transit, passenger rail, highways, bridges, clean drinking water, high-speed internet, and semiconductors. But these investments pale in comparison to defense spending.

To this day, the military-industrial complex continues to be the most comprehensive form of U.S. industrial policy. The “defense industrial base” includes over 200,000 companies, hundreds of universities, and millions of direct and indirect jobs that are created when nearly half of the federal discretionary budget is earmarked for war. Cutting defense production will be necessary for reducing the country’s carbon footprint and freeing up resources for green infrastructure.

But that shouldn’t mean outsourcing more military jobs to defense contractors, or simply “greening” the armed forces with electric tanks, as some have proposed. Instead, the government should pair cuts to defense spending with a green industrial policy that retrains and rehires defense workers. Rather than building green manufacturing from scratch, Biden should treat the defense sector as a high-tech foundation from which to start.