Skip to main content
KBS_Icon_questionmark link-ico
CovidMOD ;

How militaries around the world joined the battle against Covid-19

Making sense of the impact on society
Martin Bricknell

Professor in Conflict, Health and Military Medicine

19 June 2020

Whilst the coronavirus Covid-19 pandemic is a threat to health, the crisis has had an impact across most aspects of societal function including economics, security, business, transport, education and personal behaviours. Many leaders have compared the threat to a ‘war’, which is testing crisis response systems in countries across the world, with states enlisting elements of their military and security systems to support civil efforts to tackle the virus.

The security sector (intelligence, judiciary, police, prisons, armed forces) is an important element of crisis management in most countries. Whilst the contribution of these authorities will be focussed on internal and external security challenges, they have many core capabilities that can support other non-security responses including planning assistance, transport, logistics, manpower, and health services.

This has also applied at the NATO/EU level with existing mechanisms supporting collaboration between countries. The benefits of this civil-military co-operation are likely to form part of any future review of the Covid-19 response.

Maintenance of core security capabilities

All countries have imposed draconian public health ‘lockdown’ measures to reduce the risk of transmission of the disease across their populations. These have had substantial implications for all employers, given that most workplaces have been closed.

Like health services, there are core security capabilities that have had to be maintained such as overseas military operations, domestic security operations (eg protection of air and maritime borders), essential security response capabilities (eg public order, counterterrorism), and wider contributions to national crisis response. This has required specific health protection policy and training, including isolation and quarantine for critical personnel.

The examples of Covid-19 outbreaks in the aircraft carriers USS Nimitz and the Charles de Gaulle have shown the potential impact of a local Covid-19 outbreak on military capabilities. The challenge of managing Covid-19 in the legal system and prisons have been specific discrete issues for security institutions. There is also pressure to re-open the recruiting and training pipeline for security personnel whilst complying with infection control measures.

General military capabilities in support of Covid-19 response

The specific range of security activities that are supporting national and international responses has varied by country and the timeline of the crisis. In the early stages many countries used military aircraft and aeromedical evacuation capability to repatriate nationals from the worst affected countries. This has extended into wider repatriation for nationals trapped as a result of the closure of borders and the collapse of the air transport industry.

As the focus shifted to internal responses, the police and some armed forces have conducted public order operations to ensure public compliance with restrictions of movement. Military logistics forces have supported the procurement, manufacture, storage, transport and distribution of critical supplies including personal protective equipment, ventilators, and oxygen.

Military units have been re-rolled to provide new functions such as mobile Covid-19 testing units or patient screening centres at hospitals Overall, this crisis has shown that, in the words of the UK Military:

Defence can play a supporting role, providing niche capabilities, or more generalist support when the civil authorities’ capacity/capability is overwhelmed by an incident, when directed to do so, or when preparing for major national events.’

The extra resource and support provided by militaries around the world underlines the importance of considering the security and military health system as part of a country’s whole health economy.– Professor Martin Bricknell

Security medical capabilities

The scope and scale of the contribution of security health services to the overall health response will be determined be the pre-existing structure of the country’s health system, the size of the security health system, and the needs and gaps in any civilian response.

All countries’ armed forces have military medical services that are trained to deploy to support overseas military operations. Many military medical services also run medical services within military garrisons and military hospitals. These personnel and units can also augment the civilian health response to internal crises.

Military medical personnel have been deployed at short notice to augment military and civilian medical facilities facing overwhelming numbers of Covid-19 cases, eg the support to the NHS Nightingale Hospitals in the UK. Some nations have also deployed field hospitals in this role, eg US hospital ships sent to New York and French resuscitation units sent to Mulhouse, which was the epicentre of the country’s first Covid outbreak.

Military medical ambulance services have moved Covid-19 patients by air and road to help relieve pressure on local hospitals. Military research institutions have augmented civilian research capacity into Covid-19 including supporting national testing efforts.

The extra resource and support provided by militaries around the world underlines the importance of considering the security and military health system as part of a country’s whole health economy.


Looking to the future

The ways in which nations around the world have enlisted different elements of their security operations to support responses to the Covid crisis, often at rapid speeds and under high-pressure and high-risk scenarios, emphases the importance of the security sector in dealing with national crises.

At the Defence Studies Department, King’s College London, we have recently published analysis summarising the security sector’s contribution to countries’ health systems. We also expect to publish further work on global comparisons between military health systems, methods to analyse military health systems, and civil-military medical collaboration in the Covid-19 crisis, to help inform the ongoing efforts to tackle the pandemic as well as offering recommendations for future crisis.


Professor Martin Bricknell is a Professor of Conflict, Health and Military Medicine
in the School of Security Studies, King's College London

This piece was written in collaboration with Zenobia Homan and Ryan Leone from King's College London; Adrian Gheorghe, Mohamed Gad and Joseph Kazibwe from Imperial College London, Global Centre for Development.

In this story

Martin Bricknell

Martin Bricknell

Professor in Conflict, Health and Military Medicine

Zenobia  Homan

Zenobia Homan

Research Fellow and Project Coordinator

Making sense of the impact on society

Across society, each and every one of us are experiencing unprecedented changes to all aspects of our daily lives. Using their expertise, our researchers are working tirelessly to assess and…

Latest news