General Dynamics execs detail COVID-19 precautions taken to build light tank prototypes

February 16, 2021

By Ethan Sterenfeld

A tank assembly line cannot be transitioned to work-from-home.

But last year, General Dynamics Land Systems had to produce 12 prototypes of the Mobile Protected Firepower, the Army's new light tank, at the same time the pandemic closed workplaces and threw a wrench in supply chains.

The company minimized delays on the prototypes and prevented the spread of the virus at its plants through mask-wearing, social distancing and flexibility with suppliers, GDLS executives told Inside Defense in a Feb. 10 interview.

"We were very, very deliberate in our approach to dealing with the pandemic," said Donald Kotchman, vice president and general manager for the United States. "Early on, we took the CDC guidance, we then did an analysis of the guidance and what it meant. We implemented an information campaign throughout the organization so that everybody did the ground rules of social distancing. We established a mask-wearing policy."

Around the start of the coronavirus' spread in the United States, GDLS set up a high-level task force to monitor the situation and determine the company's policies. Kotchman said the leader of the task force, the vice president for human resources, has briefed the company's president at least once per week since it began.

GDLS spread out their production to three shifts per day soon after the start of the pandemic, so that fewer workers were in the building at any one time, Kotchman said. The prototype facility in Sterling Heights, MI, had worked on two shifts for MPF production before the pandemic.

The company staggered shifts and increased overtime allowances for smooth transitions between the teams, he said. Before they came to work, employees had to open a company-built smartphone application and certify they were not experiencing symptoms.

There was an experiment with checking temperatures as workers entered buildings, said Robert Lennox, vice president for strategy and business development at GDLS. He said the company found thermometers did not make a "demonstrable difference" in stopping the spread of the virus.

Where possible, the company expanded the space between stations in its assembly plants, Lennox said. Within stations, it tried to station workers on opposite sides of the vehicle.

Sometimes, distancing was impossible, so GDLS made sure to have sufficient personal protective equipment to reduce the risk of virus transmission.

"When you have two people in close proximity inside of the turret of a combat vehicle, yeah, you're not socially distancing six feet," Lennox said. "That's where you rely on the double protection of the PPE to provide you the required protection."

Despite some delays, the company was able to build and deliver all 12 prototypes before an operational assessment began Jan. 4 at Ft. Bragg, NC.

"We lost probably between two and three months early on as we adjusted to the change, but we were able to recover and deliver the vehicles in time for the soldier vehicle assessment that began on the fourth of January," Kotchman said.

BAE Systems, the other competitor for the MPF contract, delivered the first of its 12 prototypes in mid-December.

"BAE Systems is working to deliver our Mobile Protected Firepower prototypes to the Army, and plan[s] to do so in time for the Soldier Vehicle Assessment," Amanda Niswonger, a BAE spokeswoman, told Inside Defense in a written statement last week. "We are working on a clear path with the Army on a delivery schedule, and remain committed to getting our offering in the hands of the soldiers who need a lightweight direct-fire weapon system to support Airborne and Light Infantry units."

The Army is scheduled to choose one of the MPF prototypes for production in the third quarter of fiscal year 2022, and the vehicles should be fielded to soldiers in FY-25.

The importance of combat vehicles to national security made it easier to convince workers to comply with the restrictions of the pandemic, such as wearing personal protective equipment and changing shifts, GDLS' Lennox said.

"We're in this business to a certain degree because it's important, you're making a contribution, and it's to the United States government," Lennox said. "Whereas if you're making another product that's commercial in value, you may feel like you can miss a day or something."

Because of the company's precautions, there was "an extremely limited number" of cases where the virus was transmitted in the workplace, Kotchman said.

Many of the precautions that GDLS took at its prototype facility, where it built the MPF, were similar to what the company did at all of its production sites, he said. But there were particular challenges with the MPF because making a new vehicle required setting up a new supply chain.

"We had several suppliers that ran into short-term challenges associated with COVID, what I would call smaller suppliers doing the unique work of this vehicle for the first time," Kotchman said. "They caused some short-term delays, but we never really ran into a situation where a supplier became so fragile that they couldn't meet their needs."

In some cases, GDLS would perform some of the suppliers' work in its own prototyping shop, or the company would perform more of the subsystem assembly than usual when delays threatened to build up, he said.

The defense industrial base was designated as essential early in the pandemic, so GDLS suppliers did not have to deal with the uncertainty of shutdowns based on local health conditions, Kotchman said.

"That precluded any of our suppliers from having to shut down, then go try to get reauthorization," Kotchman said. "None of them wound up having to shut down because of workforce implications for COVID. We had shifts that had to stop to do cleanups because of the COVID outbreak, but they were usually able to recover schedule."

GDLS maintained close communication with its suppliers and the Army so that the company could plan for any delays or new restrictions, he said, adding that while there were some close calls, the supply chain was generally able to meet the company's needs.

So if GDLS took extra precautions, bought protective equipment, paid more overtime to employees and helped some suppliers, what was the financial impact of the pandemic?

"We do not know what that number is, on the Mobile Protected Firepower and on all of our contracts," Kotchman said. "In a fixed-price environment, none of that was passed on to the government. Those were costs that we absorbed."