The Invisible Enemy – How Defense Industry Companies are Coping with the Global Pandemic

Following its declaration as a pandemic, the Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19), pushed countries to take strict measures and raised many questions regarding both the economy and the continuity of production activities.

Tarih: Issue 98 - April 2020

COVID-19 (Coronavirus Disease 2019) is currently affecting 203 countries and territories around the world and has brought businesses and entire economies to a halt. Numerous countries are in the midst of implementing either mitigation measures or curfews that are taking a toll on both people and industry. While most of the attention has been focused on the impact on health services and the economy, the spread of the virus is beginning to affect defense industry companies that were involved in large scale military projects. Many companies have already urged their employees to work from home or have placed them on administrative leave. 

However, most of the workforce is still reporting for work and the bulk of the production is still ongoing thanks to enhanced disinfection efforts and shift changes that have reduced the number of people working at one time. Although defense companies try to continue their business without disruption, both domestic and foreign disturbances have caused a slowdown in the industry as the main contractors and procurement processes in the industry are affected by the unexpected emergence of the COVID-19 outbreak. 

On the other hand, defense industry companies have significant infrastructure and capability in technology development and production. This extensive know-how and R&D offers a real opportunity to contribute to the studies being carried out in other sectors, such as healthcare especially in providing electronic equipment, circuits, imaging and image processing devices, Microelectromechanical systems (MEMS), control systems, materials and material technologies that can be used in medical devices.

In light of the recent developments, with the emergence of the Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19), President of Defense Industries İsmail DEMİR made a statement about the contributions that can be made to the health care sector by defense industry companies. The President of Defense Industries İsmail DEMİR evaluated the measures taken due to the Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic and the contributions of defense industry companies to meet the needs arising in the health sector. Emphasizing that the Turkish Defense Industry is ready to provide all kinds of support for health services with its knowledge and capabilities, DEMİR stated that they are keeping personnel in charge of necessary tasks in companies and are ensuring that the required measures are taken during the work.

Stating that their main goal is to protect the health of employees without disrupting critical operations, DEMİR emphasized that they have taken several measures to maintain their activities and to ensure maximum compliance with health rules to guarantee the health of personnel. Emphasizing that the concept of defense is a matter of understanding and not only to meet the needs and equipment of the Armed Forces or Security Forces, İsmail DEMİR drew attention to the transfer and use of the experience of the defense sector to other sectors.

Pointing out that existing capabilities of the defense industry can be easily applied to other fields, DEMİR affirmed that the awareness raised is a beginning for the national technology movement to be implemented in the field of healthcare. DEMİR also added that they are ready to use all capabilities, existing infrastructure, and the facilities of defense industry companies to provide the sub-components of much-needed equipment such as ventilators. DEMİR stated that the defense industry is ready to operate in the health sector with all its capabilities and infrastructure.  R&D studies have been carried out by institutes within the Ministry of Industry and Technology and TÜBİTAK to build domestic and national healthcare technologies. Indicating that we should attach great importance to the concept of nationalization and localization for our future in the long term, DEMİR emphasized that everyone should use a shared map of the industry and technology ecosystem to maximum potential.

Under the directives of the Minister of National Defense Hulusi AKAR , the COVID-19 Fighting Center (COMMER) was established within the Ministry of National Defense to combat the COVID-19 pandemic, to take necessary measures and supervise all processes. Employing other personnel from the General Directorate of Primary Health Care Services, COMMER aims to establish essential protection against the pandemic in the units, headquarters, and institutions of the Ministry of National Defense. The center closely follows the developments in both Turkey and all over the world and carries out planning, management, follow-up, and monitoring activities. COMMER monitors the implementation of the measures taken in the Turkish Armed Forces as part of the fight against the COVID-19 outbreak and develops actions and medical plans to be implemented to address possible cases. 

Additionally, within the scope of the battle against the COVID-19 pandemic, all Military Academies, Institutes, and Higher Education Schools under the National Defense University were closed until April 13, 2020. Activities such as ceremonies, conferences, short-term meetings, courses, fairs, and seminars were also canceled until further notice. To protect the border units from the Novel Coronavirus, new ways to minimize contact with individuals caught during illegal crossings were determined, and troops were equipped with protective clothing, gloves, and masks. Upon the instructions given by the Minister of National Defense Hulusi Akar to produce masks that are in high demand because of the COVID-19 outbreak, MKE Machinery and Gas Mask Factory (MAKSAM) has accelerated its production. MKE MAKSAM facilities produce chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear (CBRN) gas masks, as well as rubber-based masks developed against viral hazards. As part of the measures taken against the COVID-19 outbreak, workers continue to produce disposable face masks. Production lines are regularly disinfected, and the body temperature of employees are measured and recorded at the entrance and exit of the factory. The daily production of disposable face masks at the MKE facilities was also increased to 400-500 thousand.

When we look at the 2018 figures of the Turkish Defense Industry published by the Defense and Aerospace Industry Manufacturers Association (SaSaD), the total turnover rate increased by 30.90% despite all the adversities experienced in 2018 and reached US$8,761 billion, while the number of employees reached 67,239 with a 50.29% increase compared to last year. While the defense industry is currently not affected as much as many other industries, maintaining all assembly lines and an active workforce in the face of a global pandemic is a challenging situation that defense companies could face.

As part of the fight against the virus, Aselsan has announced that it has initiated an R&D study on diagnosing the COVID-19 infection with a sensitive optical biosensor method in the Aselsan Research Centre Biodefence Department, which had previously been successful in detecting the Hepatitis-B virus. Implementing contact-reducing measures in line with the social distancing guidelines determined by the Ministry of Health and the Coronavirus Scientific Committee, Aselsan stated that the company temporarily stopped using biometric palm scanners at the entrances and exits of its facilities as of February 26, 2020. Additionally, as of March 20, 2020, the company allowed only 4,965 of its 8,100 employees to continue their duties to reduce density in its premises. Furthermore, the company made changes to its working environment due to COVID-19 and placed pregnant personnel and vulnerable employees on administrative leave as of March 16, 2020. Aselsan closed all the cafeterias on its campuses until further notice as of March 19, 2020 and stated that it would provide packed meals for each employee. The company also reported that it launched an aid campaign to meet the material and equipment needs of health care workers through the Aselsan Social Innovation Leaders (ASIL) Program.

Ensuring that the necessary measures are carried out with its “Coronary Virus Outbreak Emergency” team FNSS, announced that, based on their field of work, certain employees have started to work from home to reduce the density in line with social distancing measures. Within the scope of these measures, the company announced that pregnant and disadvantaged personnel, employees with chronic illnesses and previous critical operations, and workers who are over the age of 60, will be placed on administrative leave for a period not less than the legal regulations. The company also stated that it would conduct all meeting with partners and customers via teleconference or video conference.

Stating that it has conducted the necessary disinfection & sterilization measures at its facilities, Nurol Makina announced that it continues production. The company placed its managers & employees who returned from aboard on administrative leave for 14 days and allowed them to continue their work from home. Nurol also implemented necessary social distancing measures at its facilities in line with the guidelines of the Ministry of Health.

Since the defense industry is of critical importance for Turkey, Meteksan stated that it would continue to work with all necessary precautions, as long as the company does not receive a contrary notification from the Ministry of Health and that the risk level can be kept under control. In coordination with the Ministry of Health, Meteksan Defense stated that certain employees started to work from home according to their work qualifications to reduce the intensity in the working environment. Meteksan Defense also announced that all international travel had been canceled until further notice, and all employees returning from abroad would be placed on administrative leave for self-quarantine 14 days.

Otokar made an announcement via the Public Disclosure Platform (PDP) about the company's Partial or Complete Suspension or Impossibility of Operations and stated that within the framework of measures taken to reduce the effects of Coronavirus affecting the whole world, Otokar decided to suspend production activities for 14 days, starting from March 25, 2020, due to the disruptions in the procurement and delivery processes from European countries. Otokar also noted that activities related to non-production operations would continue within the framework of the company's Business Continuity Plan and measures for the health of its employees.

Telescopic Lifting Systems (Mast) manufacturer MILMAST stated that due to COVID-19 Pandemic countermeasures, the company would continue its activities to meet the needs of the defense industry effectively. Emphasizing that the safety of their employees, families, and customers are MILMAST's primary concern, the company announced that it disinfects all facilities periodically, adheres to the social distancing rules, and applies all related precautions. MILMAST also allowed its administrative staff to continue to work remotely while all other employees work in minimum numbers according to their fields of activity.

SDT (Space and Defense Technology) has announced that it will continue its activities with a rotating shift system as of March 30, 2020, onwards to protect all its employees and business partners from COVID-19.

Havelsan General Manager Ahmet Hamdi Atalay provided information regarding measures taken by Havelsan for the COVID-19 outbreak within the scope of social distancing guidelines and stressed the importance of staying at home to combat the Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.  He called upon young people to spend this period engaging in online training to learn to code. Atalay called for young people to learn artificial intelligence technologies and stated that there are numerous online and free courses on the internet about machine learning, deep learning, and artificial intelligence applications. Announcing that they stopped public education and activities for a while due to the COVID-19 outbreak, Atalay stated that they started to work from home and underlined that Havelsan would continue to improve to meet the needs of its customers by creating the necessary infrastructures.

Underlining that they produce critical weapon systems for the Turkish Armed Forces, Roketsan reported that it would not stop its production due to the COVID-19 pandemic because and stated that the company is ready to fulfill its duties to provide medical equipment. In this context, Roketsan announced that the company aims to share its technological know-how and production infrastructure to provide the much-needed medical equipment to support the fight against the virus outbreak. Roketsan also stated that Turkey will succeed in this struggle with its trained workforce, scientific infrastructure, and solidarity as a nation and offered its gratitude to all healthcare professionals working with great devotion in the fight against COVID-19. 

As part of the fight against the outbreak, various defense industry companies supported the medical ventilator production campaign initiated by CTO of Baykar, Selçuk BAYRAKTAR on March 22 and the production of 5,000 devices has started. To combat the Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19), the ventilators (artificial respiration apparatus) are as crucial as the coronavirus test kits. In most countries where there are numerous critical patients in intensive care units due to coronavirus, the number of ventilators is insufficient. Although there aren't any ventilator shortages in Turkey, domestic companies continue to manufacture ventilators in case of increased demand. 

The company Biosys which operates at Bilkent Teknopark is one of these companies. Aselsan cooperated with Biosys in 2018 and aimed to make Turkey one of the six countries that can manufacture medical ventilators. In this context, Baykar Defense, Aselsan, Havelsan, Tarnet, Turkish Aerospace, and Roketsan provided technical support for ventilator production using their experience and infrastructure in the defense industry, and Arçelik opened its facilities for serial production. Stating that Baykar ordered 250 devices from Biosys to boost the production of ventilators, Selçuk BAYRAKTAR, in his statement from his twitter account, expressed his gratitude to the relevant companies and announced that 1,000 medical ventilators were donated. He also added that 5,000 respiratory equipment would be produced for the needs of the Ministry of Health in total.

Following the announcement of the pandemic, international defense industry companies started to take measures to continue their production amidst a global outbreak and to protect the health of their employees. 

The US defense giant Lockheed Martin has been forced to stop the production of F-35 parts at two facilities in Italy and Japan due to the coronavirus. In response to this crisis, Lockheed Martin made an announcement and stated that the company would be guided by and will operate with three clear priorities. First, LM will continue to protect the health and safety of its employees on the job and their families. Second, LM will continue to perform and deliver for its customers, and third, LM will do its part to use the know-how, resources, and leadership as a company to assist its communities during this period of national crisis. 

As an initial contribution to the COVID-19 relief and recovery effort, Lockheed Martin announced that it would advance more than US$50 million to small and medium-sized business partners in its supply chain to ensure they have the financial means to continue to operate, sustain jobs, and support the economy. LM has also activated a US$6.5 million employee disaster relief fund to assist Lockheed Martin employees and retirees impacted by COVID-19. Additionally, LM donated the use of its corporate aircraft and vehicle fleet for COVID-19 relief logistical support and medical supply delivery and indicated that the company would also donate the use of its facilities for crisis-related activities including critical medical supply storage, distribution, and COVID-19 testing, where needed and practical.

Regarding the Coronavirus (COVID-19), Boeing stated that the safety of its employees, their dependents, and visitors to their sites remains a top priority. To protect its employees, Boeing increased the cleaning of high-touch areas and impacted sites and asked all employees who can effectively do their jobs from home to telecommute. It offered its Dreamlifter to transport urgently needed supplies to healthcare professionals and utilized 3D printing capabilities to manufacture face shields, shipping masks, gloves, and other equipment for its employees in impacted areas and for hospitals in need. The company also encouraged virtual meetings whenever possible and social distancing of 6 feet (1.82m) or more when face-to-face meetings are critical.

In its most recent statement about COVID-19, BAE Systems is focusing on safeguarding the health and wellbeing of its more than 35,000 employees, their families, and local communities. As BAE Systems carry out their mission-essential work in support of national security and the critical transportation infrastructure of the US, the company monitors guidance from governmental and health authorities and updates their procedures accordingly. To support social distancing, BAE has asked employees who can work remotely to do so. Given the essential nature of its business, the company stated that not all of the work could be done from home, so BAE has put in place measures recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, including enhanced cleaning procedures and various forms of social distancing