Construction workers toiled on the new Northrop Grumman building next to Hill Air Force base for more than a year. During that time, as CEO, Warden participated in quarterly earnings conference calls with investors, and in every one, someone asked when she expected the big contract. In the fall of 2019, analysts asked her if either a Federal Trade Commission investigation or competition from Boeing might affect the process of awarding a GBSD contract. Each time, she said she expected a deal by the fall of 2020. She made no mention of the upcoming presidential election, but everyone knew that a new administration or significant turnover in the senate could derail the GBSD if it wasn’t a done deal. Investors also quizzed her about “CapEx,” or capital expenditures, which are funds a company uses to acquire physical assets like buildings. In the January 2020 earnings call, Warden said she expected the company to spend $1.35 billion on capital expenditures in 2020, a figure inflated due to the GBSD, though she didn’t say by how much. With the new Utah property, the company was clearly spending a lot on a project it hadn’t yet been hired to do.
In May of 2020, Warden spoke at the Bernstein Strategic Decisions Conference, an annual investors’ event, held virtually to accommodate the pandemic. She answered questions in front of a Northrop-logo backdrop while a Bernstein analyst asked questions from a home office. In March, the federal government had passed the CARES Act, spending $2.2 trillion to try to rescue the economy from the impact of the pandemic. It was considering another bailout package. The analyst asked, delicately, if the health crisis threatened to slow down the GBSD: “Some people have speculated that, GBSD being a very large long-term program, if there is budget pressure … Are you seeing any evidence of that as a possibility, that this could take a little bit longer to push through development than perhaps we had thought?”
“We’re actually seeing quite the opposite focus, a focus on schedule and the importance of getting through the engineering phase of this program on time,” she replied. “It is important that we both get started now.”
In early July, the House Armed Services Committee debated the defense authorization bill for 2021 in a late-night session. By this time, the coronavirus had shut down huge swathes of the economy, and the United States was identifying 50,000 new cases per day. House members wore masks and sat scattered from one another in a cavernous committee room. Ro Khanna, the California Democrat who represents Silicon Valley, made a pitch from a video screen. He proposed an amendment that would transfer $1 billion—or one percent of the missile’s projected cost—away from the GBSD and into a pandemic preparedness fund.
In the ensuing discussion, Republican Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, home of F.E. Warren Air Force Base and the city of Cheyenne, which like Great Falls anticipates a GBSD windfall, countered her colleague with a string of non-sequiturs. She said the Chinese government had caused the global pandemic; that Congress needed to “hold the Chinese government accountable for this death and devastation;” and that Khanna’s plan would benefit the government of China. “It is absolutely shameful in my view,” she said of his proposal. “I don’t think the Chinese government, frankly, could imagine in their wildest dreams that they would have been able to get a member of the United States Congress to propose, in response to the pandemic, that we ought to cut a billion dollars out of our nuclear forces.” Khanna’s proposal was voted down. The House went on to pass a defense authorization bill worth $741 billion, including $1.5 billion for the GBSD to be spent in 2021 alone.
Of course, defense companies don’t expect politicians to vote for massive defense spending without encouragement, and their efforts at persuasion take several forms.
First, they hire their former clients, retired military leaders. In a 2018 report, the Project on Government Oversight, a non-partisan watchdog, counted 24 former senior defense department officials who were employed at that time by Northrop Grumman.
Second, defense contractors give money to elected officials, though not directly. A company’s employees, executives, and their family members may donate to political campaigns, as may the company’s Political Action Committees, or PACs, which are organizations set up for the purpose of making such contributions.
The non-partisan Center for Responsive Politics tracks campaign contributions by industry, tallying how much each corporation gives via these two proxy methods. The total amount the defense aeronautics industry gave to national politicians rose steadily from $8.4 million per two-year election cycle in 1990—as the Cold War ended—to a new peak of $35.3 million in the 2020 cycle. The money is liberally distributed, going to both Republicans and Democrats—51 percent to 49 percent in 2020—and spread among many campaigns.