Story: The Defence Sector’s Response to the Covid-19 Pandemic

by | Apr 16, 2020

From field hospitals to ventilators and transport aircraft to diagnostics, the Defence sector has stepped in to make a vital contribution to the coronavirus pandemic. Simon Michell reveals the contribution it has made and looks for clues as to what this tells us all about the future.

The Coronavirus is arguably the fifth major pandemic this century and a successor to a long line of notorious plagues reaching back to the Black Death in the 14th century. In fact, even the Romans endured mass epidemics of smallpox and measles way back in the second century AD, after legionnaires returned to Rome having besieged what is now Iraq. However, if anything, the list of pandemics below indicates fairly bleakly that pandemics are more of a modern phenomenon than a feature of our past.


  • Antonine Plague (165 AD)
  • Black Death Plague 1346
  • 3rd Cholera pandemic 1852
  • Flu 1889
  • 6th 1910 Cholera Pandemic
  • Spanish Flu (1918)
  • Asian Flu (1956)
  • Hong Kong Flu (1968)
  • SARS (2002)
  • HIV/AIDS (2005)
  • Ebola (2014)
  • MERS (2015)
  • Coronavirus (2019)

Coronavirus Challenges

The VentilatorChallengeUK project is reverse engineering respirators like this Smiths ParaPAC system (Credit: Smiths)

With the start of the coronavirus outbreak in November 2019, it became immediately obvious that, barring one or two notable exceptions, even the most advanced nations were ill-prepared for the impact the virus would wreak on their health systems. As nations experienced the loss of their first victims to the disease, they sent out calls for urgent supplies of very specific items: ventilators, respirators, PPE (Personal Protective Equipment), disinfectants, testing equipment and vaccines.

In tandem, governments also had to create new hospitals to locate the thousands of intensive care beds that were needed. Suddenly, the whole world was focussed on an overriding need to produce equipment, clothing and infrastructure to protect everyone that had already or was going to come into close proximity with the virus. Demand for medical equipment and infrastructure was focussed on:

  • Field Hospitals
  • Ventilators
  • Breathing aids/respirators
  • Personal Protective Equipment
  • Hand sanitizers
  • Testing kits
  • Vaccines

The next challenge to be overcome was the transportation of all this equipment from producer nations to recipient countries as well as within each territory on arrival. Key workers, especially doctors and nurses, also needed to be airlifted at speed to where they were most needed. Although most commercial passenger aircraft have cargo space in the hold, the volumes of stores being moved around necessitated access to transport aircraft designed to carry enormous volumes of stores. The vast majority of these were found either in military forces or in aircraft manufacturing companies such as Airbus, Antonov, Embraer and Lockheed Martin. Military organisations like NATO’s Strategic Air Command (SAC) and Strategic Airlift International Solution (SALIS) rapidly deployed aircraft, as did a host of national air forces. German, Russian and Turkish armed forces, for example, were very quick to answers Italy’s call for urgent supplies of PPE.

In the UK, the massive temporary Nightingale hospitals being erected and equipped around the country require a constant stream of lorries to bring in the supplies to create these astonishing clinics and keep them fully supplied with everything they need. It should not be forgotten that the British Army’s Royal Engineers played a key role in the site selection and design of these field hospitals, and in the logistic challenge to supply them, which since the London Nightingale has 4000 beds is no mean feat.

In order to create viable plans for delay, containment and the eventual defeat of the virus, governments relied on a host of agencies able to undertake analysis and prediction of the rate of spread and the likely number of nurses, doctors, ventilators, respirators and PPE packs required. This is one area where the advanced nations appeared to be relatively well prepared. However, it has been suggested that the modelling of future pandemics needs to be done much quicker and where possible much more in advance of their arrival. This will require better situational awareness of where these types of viruses are actually appearing so that adequate notification can be afforded across the globe – a global tsunami alert for disease.

The Defence Sector’s Rapid Response

BAE Systems have successfully 3D-printed face shields (Credit: BAE Systems)

Although most Governments have asked all sectors of their economies to pull together to combat Covid-19, two countries highlight the ability for the defence industrial sector to repurpose its technology and production capabilities almost spontaneously. The Israeli Government has set itself the goal of becoming self-sufficient in the development and production of medical ventilators. To that end, the Israeli MOD has tasked one of its foremost producers of missile systems and sensors, Rafael, to join forces with electronics company Baya Technologies and a ventilator specialist, Flight Medical, to develop a ventilator production capability on such a scale as to eliminate Israel’s need to import the systems in the future.

Reservist Brigadier General Dr. Danny Gold, Head of the Directorate of Defence Research and Development DDR&D at the Israeli MOD, highlighted the role that defence companies can play in future crises: “Our defence industries have extraordinary capabilities to manufacture any component, and in large quantities, whether it is for weapons or for respirators, thus eliminating the reliance on import. We are working on widening the collaborations and the joint production lines of the defence and healthcare industries.”

The United Kingdom has also mobilised its defence sector to join the electronics, digital and medical sectors under the banner of VentilatorChallengeUK RMVS (Rapidly Manufactured Ventilator System). Again, the goal is to manufacture ventilators and respirators at scale and speed. One of the groupings taking part in the project consists of the key defence sector firms in the UK: Airbus UK, BAE Systems, GKN, Meggitt, Rolls-Royce, Thales UK and Ultra Electronics. The ambition is awe-inspiring. The UK project will reverse engineer existing designs so that they can be produced in massive volumes. Two of the healthcare companies involved in the consortium (Penlon and Smiths) currently manufacture ventilators at rate of about 50 per week. The ambition of VentilatorChallengeUK is to scale this up to 1,500 per week.

These activities are merely the tip of the iceberg. Around the globe defence companies have rallied to the call and are already producing a range of equipment and protective equipment/clothing to meet the impending demands of the outbreak. Almost all of the global aerospace and defence (A&D) prime contractors are supporting the fight against the coronavirus. The following list is not exhaustive, but highlights how the A&D sector is responding:

  • Airbus: 3D-printing visors in Spain, and using its own planes for cargo transport,
  • Aselsan: Ventilator manufacture with Arcelik, Baykar and Biosys,
  • Babcock: working on Ventilator design (Zephyr Plus) with partners Draegerwerk and Sagentia,
  • BAE Systems: (VentilatorChallengeUK) – supply of subsystems and components,
  • Boeing: Partnered with Solvay to 3D print face shields/visors, lending Dreamlifter aircraft for transportation of supplies,
  • Embraer: ventilator/respirator components, air filtration systems for ICU beds,
  • Leonardo: supply of transport aircraft, 3D printing valve to transform snorkel into respirator,
  • Lockheed Martin: manufacturing PPE (face shields),
  • Rolls-Royce: VentilatorChallenge,
  • Textron: manufacture of face shields and masks,
  • Thales: VentilatorChallenge, access to study by its Cyber Threat Intelligence Centre.


Military response to focus on testing and vaccines

The Military R&D organisations which support and generate the defence sector’s innovation programmes are helping to expand capacity in the vital area of testing and vaccination. Some have been doing it for a while. The US Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) announced its Pandemic Prevention Platform (P3) programme in 2018, having identified the need to decrease the amount of time it takes to create tests and antibodies to fight disease. P3 aims to develop a scalable and rapid response platform which is capable of producing doses against any infectious threat within 60 days of its identification. This is on top of the US DOD making 16 testing facilities available for the coronavirus campaign.

Like DARPA, the UK’s Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (dstl), has experience with pandemics and biological agents. Notably, dstl was a key partner in the UK’s response to the Ebola crisis in 2014 but is perhaps most famous for identifying the Novichok poison that was used in an attempted assassination in Salisbury, England in 2018. Dstl has a team of scientists (some volunteers) which is working with the National Health Service (NHS) not only to help perform diagnostic testing, but also to speed up the identification of the presence of the virus in people and places. Dstl scientists are working with industrial partners to develop tests to diagnose those who have the disease, those who have had it and how long the virus can survive on surfaces. On a slightly different tack, a Spanish equivalent of dstl, Centro Militar de Farmacia de la Defensa, has been tasked with producing medicines, including paracetamol and antiviral drugs and disinfectants.

Wake-Up Call

The coronavirus has served as a wake-up call to governments around the globe, who will be tasked by their citizens to ensure that we are never again exposed to another pandemic in such a terrifying and economically devastating way. Those nations who are best prepared for the next pandemic may well avoid most of the catastrophic impact on the lives and social wellbeing the current one has had. But, to prepare properly will require a rethink in how we are able to operate as societies. It will require not only new technologies based on novel manufacturing concepts, but also a wholescale rethink in how we deal with healthcare and risk. The defence community has shown that it is willing to contribute to such an effort and has a lot more to offer. Just as it has changed our lives with inventions such as the jet engine, GPS and the internet, so can it help to change the way we live our lives in the future. Those governments that can galvanise their defence sectors into this existential struggle will go down in history for their prescience. Those that don’t may be never be forgiven.