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Why have ventilators when you can have warplanes?

Face masks photo
Photo: David Stewart/ via FlickrCC / AFSC

Responding to fears about the impact of coronavirus on public health and the economy, Congress passed a massive, $2 trillion dollar stimulus package this week. While our communities were watching for signs the federal government would help us weather this crisis, 130 lawmakers had their sights on something else—extra warplanes. 

These members of Congress had the audacity to write a letter to the leadership of the House Armed Services Committee, sent four days after the president declared a state of emergency, asking  the government to once again use taxpayer dollars to purchase 98 F-35 warplanes—19 more than the Pentagon had requested. The representatives project each additional plane will cost $77.9 million, although some analysts think $100 million is a more realistic figure.  

While prioritizing weapons of war over public health during a pandemic seems shocking, it's business as usual for Congress and administration after administration. For years, the federal government has chosen to invest massive amounts of money into preparing for war while neglecting public health, education, and other domestic priorities. 

In the regular budget cycle for Fiscal Year 2020, the Pentagon got a whopping $738 billion. Compare that to Health and Human Services, which got only $94 billion. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which has been front and center in the fight against coronavirus, received under $8 billion in program funding.

Even these comparatively tiny levels of funding are under attack from the Trump administration, which submitted a budget request that included billions in cuts for Health and Human Services, including a $1.2 billion cut to the CDC.

These misguided budget priorities come at a huge cost, and now we are seeing that cost firsthand. To be conservative, let’s accept the $77.9 million price tag for a single F-35A. The price of just one of these warplanes could buy 77.9 million N-95 face masks at one dollar each.  The 19 superfluous F-35s requested by the members of Congress could purchase some 30,000 premium ventilators at $50,000 each. When our government misallocates money into war that could have gone into keeping our communities healthy, we all suffer.

It is unconscionable that so many of our elected officials would continue to aggressively support the war machine in the middle of a global health crisis—especially when much-needed investment in the healthcare sector would create twice the number of jobs as the same amount of investment in the defense industry.

Imagine if we had been "ready" for a public health crisis or financial collapse, rather than pretending that spending billions on weapons actually makes us safer. 

The scope of a pandemic shows that the biggest threats to our security can come through inattention to public health. Pandemics, climate change, inadequate infrastructure and education, and lack of affordable housing are some of the biggest threats to collective well-being we face. We urgently need investment in health care, the environment, and other sectors that help us thrive. In order to do this, our leaders need to start investing money where it matters—not in weapons of war, but in programs that build truly resilient communities.  

About the Authors

Tori Bateman is policy advocacy coordinator in AFSC's Office of Public Policy and Advocacy. She advocates for U.S. policy that aligns with AFSC's vision of shared security.

Arnie Alpert served as AFSC’s New Hampshire co-director, where he first joined AFSC in 1981. He retired from AFSC in June 2020. Arnie is a leader in movements for economic justice and affordable housing, civil and worker rights, peace and disarmament, abolition of the death penalty, and an end to racism and homophobia. 

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