Seeing the Military Budget Through a Healthcare Lens

In an April 27 post on, data journalist Niall McCarthy called attention to a new report on global military expenditure by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) which shows that $1.9 trillion was spent on military hardware in 2019. McCarthy poses an interesting question. “Given the threats presented by geo-political tensions, regional conflicts and terrorism, not to mention the vital obligations of disaster relief and humanitarian work, there is plenty of justification for a large military budget. However, with COVID-19 now responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths across the world, what would happen if large portions of military budgets had been set aside in preparation for a pandemic such as COVID-19?”

To answer the question, he points to a Greenpeace analysis of the SIPRI report which examined the quantities of healthcare items that could be purchased for the unit price of various pieces of military hardware. For example, a U.S. Navy Virginia class nuclear powered attack submarine has a unit price of some $2.8 billion and that money could pay for just over 9,000 ambulances. Likewise, Greenpeace claims that the money required to purchase a FREMM class multipurpose frigate could also pay more than 10,600 doctors for a year.

The F-35 fighter jet has already become the most expensive weapons program in history and the unit price for each jet is now approximately $89 million. That could keep 3,244 ICU beds in operation while the aircraft's $44,000 hourly operating costs could cover a nurse's salary for an entire year. The German-made Leopard 2 main battle tank has an $11 million price tag these days, broadly equivalent to the cost of 440 ventilators. Likewise, a single shell for its 120mm cannon could pay for 90 COVID-19 tests. Greenpeace's analysis is undoubtedly interesting but of course it has to be said that nobody could foresee what medical equipment would be necessary to contain the next global pandemic. Still, considering the damage COVID-19 has inflicted, we may see some noticeable to changes to government budgets in the years ahead.

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