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Turning Swords Into Plowshares One Bus At A Time

Only policy shifts will enable us to transition from a military economy to a green one.

Words: Miriam Pemberton
Pictures: Sigmund

The biblical injunction to beat swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks, on the way to learning war no more, has always had appeal. It makes sense that some of the trillions of dollars the United States has poured into military technology ought to be repurposed for peaceful purposes.

As a practical strategy, though, it hasn’t always had much respect. Some of this disdain can be laid at the door of a few spectacular failures. During the military spending downturn following the end of the Vietnam War, for example, military contractor Grumman (now part of Big Prime Northrop Grumman) decided to go into the bus-building business. Fulfilling a contract with the New York Transit Authority, they rolled a bus fleet onto New York City streets, where they immediately began breaking down. A public relations disaster ensued. “There was something in the paper about it every day,” one engineer says. The Transit Authority sued Grumman in 1984, and four year later, Grumman paid the transit authority $40 million.

This case and a few others like it convinced a lot of contractors not to try.

When problems turned up, they just fixed them, avoiding the public relations debacle that had given both Grumman and economic conversion a black eye.

But following the end of the Cold War, the Pentagon budget dropped by a third, and the procurement budget — funding private military contracting — dropped by two-thirds. The contractors, in desperation, began telling their engineers to look for technologies they might be able to adapt and sell to the civilian sector.

One such engineering group worked for Lockheed Martin, the military contractor giant of them all, in Binghamton, New York. They were working on converting the mechanical flight controls of a fighter jet to run electronically and also working on a locomotive project using regenerative braking — the kind that now powers electric cars. They put together what they’d learned from these projects and built a hybrid electric bus. Lockheed sold its Binghamton operations to another mega-contractor, BAE Systems, whose buses are now reducing greenhouse gas emissions in New York, London, Tokyo, Toronto, and multiple other locations around the world.

How did they succeed where Grumman failed? Why, by learning from Grumman’s mistakes of course.


The biggest mistake creating those well-known swords-into-plowshares failures is trying to make products for the civilian sector using military production processes.

In a paper for Brown University’s Costs of War project, I explain how the folks in Binghamton found another way. For example, they abandoned the military practice of concurrency, which allows military manufacturers to go into full production before the bugs are worked out. The BAE team, by contrast, tested their buses mostly off-road. Then they put only 10 on the streets of New York at first. When problems turned up, they just fixed them, avoiding the public relations debacle that had given both Grumman and economic conversion a black eye.

They hired people with commercial expertise, who understood how to do high-volume production — i.e., the different demands of producing 100 buses vs. 10 high-tech planes.

They also figured out the culture shift that would be required to go from operating within the extremely rigid requirements of military specifications or MILSPECS to the more adaptive environment of the commercial world, where cost considerations can take precedence over “high-performance” national security rules. Cost-cutting, and streamlined access to export markets, also dictated setting up new, separate accounting and IT systems.

However, such cases will remain devilishly hard to find and, therefore, marginal to the task of creating a less-militarized world unless two conditions are met. First, we must shift the federal budget away from providing ever more astronomical funds to the tools of military force and toward addressing climate change, which the military itself calls an urgent and growing threat to national security.

And second, we must replace our militarized industrial policy with a focus on the transition to a zero-emission economy. Such a policy must link the shift in the budget to a framework of strict emissions standards and a set of federal programs — for worker retraining, small business technical assistance, and pre-competitive research and development help, among other things — to overcome the barriers to industrial transition. One model for such a shift in industrial policy comes from California during the post-Cold War period. It linked the strictest emissions standards in the country to a plan to turn the state’s industrial capacity toward building electric cars and to train laid-off aerospace workers to build them.

So where are we now with such a transition? It is being thwarted by a budget that threatens to take military spending, adjusted for inflation, higher than it has ever been since World War II. On the climate side, the Biden administration has managed to get programs through Congress that constitute a good start on a green industrial policy. Spending on the centerpiece of that policy, contained in the Inflation Adjustment Act, amounts to about 3% per year of what the Pentagon is getting.

We have to do better.

Miriam Pemberton is the author of the new book Six Stops on the National Security Tour: Rethinking Warfare Economies (Routledge, 2022).

Miriam Pemberton

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