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The Military Can Help Win the Fight Against Pandemics

The Military Can Help Win the Fight Against Pandemics

Monday, 27 April, 2020 - 05:00

The Covid-19 pandemic is a bracing national security challenge — and how the country responds is doubly crucial, since biological history tells us that another, potentially more lethal, pathogen is inevitable. The US military can play a valuable role in helping to fight the next pandemic, if the lessons of this crisis are inculcated and implemented now.

America’s armed forces represent an enormous repository of talent and resources. There are 1.2 million active duty personnel and close to 800,000 guard and reservists. Virtually all are relatively young, in excellent health and are used to operating in high stress situations. Many have received basic training in how to operate in a biological warfare environment. And by the simple act of volunteering, they have demonstrated a willingness to take significant personal risk to protect others.

The military’s overriding priority must remain readiness to “fight tonight,” as we say at the Department of Defense: keeping troops prepared to conduct “prompt and sustained combat operations” anywhere in the world. That said, the Pentagon has much to contribute to containing the spread of infectious disease. Here are five ideas, ranging from broad strategic reforms to tactical measures, to harness the military’s strengths to combat future pandemics:

Expand medical intelligence. The intelligence community has 17 separate bodies, supposedly integrated by the Director of National Intelligence. In reality, little real coordination occurs, and gaps in the intelligence – and disagreements – are common. A significant chunk of the nation’s intelligence capability is embedded in the Department of Defense, including the Defense Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency, as well as the intelligence organizations for each respective service. These agencies can bolster public-health efforts by increasing their medical intelligence-gathering capabilities and working more closely with civilian partners. Military-intelligence officials should place greater emphasis on drilling and exercising against specific pandemic targets and on increased monitoring of international health statistics and foreign bio-warfare programs.

Leverage military-to-military relationships. Our military routinely operates with well over 100 different partner countries, including major annual exercises such as RIMPAC in the Pacific and PANAMAX in Latin America. These are typically focused on war fighting, with a little “soft power” work thrown in to grease the skids of cooperation. By devoting a portion of these large exercises to medical preparedness, we can help to increase levels of international cooperation when the next pandemic comes. These exercises should include not only military physicians but also doctors and nurses from civilian organizations, such as the International Committee of the Red Cross and Doctors Without Borders. This would promote the exchange of good ideas between the public and private sectors.

Create a new Pandemic Command. Based in Colorado Springs, CO, US Northern Command is responsible for defending North America and providing support to federal, state, and local governments. I have visited it many times, and it is staffed by dedicated, talented professionals. But it has too many disparate missions — ranging from air defense of the US and Canada to natural-disaster relief to patrol of the US Arctic — to adequately handle pandemic response. Going forward, the Pentagon should create a stand-alone subordinate command focused on pandemics. This could be led by a three-star military physician (perhaps one who had finished up as a service surgeon general) and staffed with our military’s top talent in the medical field.

Practice, practice, practice. The Department of Defense spends hundreds of millions of dollars annually on combat exercises around the world, as it should, but comparatively little on practicing to fight what Dr. Anthony Fauci has called the war on an “invisible enemy.” Going forward, we need a department-wide, high-stress annual exercise at global scale to test and evaluate our readiness to respond to another pandemic. This means assessing both how to fight through infections at the unit level — such as the Covid-19 outbreak on the USS Theodore Roosevelt — and how to support civilian authorities broadly. We should also have each of the 11 Combatant Commands conduct significant individual exercises (not just “table top” drills) and have well developed contingency plans for pandemic response. Some already do this, but others do not.

Stockpile resources for the next war. Lastly, we must think about developing equipment and military platforms that can be rapidly deployed against the next virus. One obvious shortcoming is the US’s meager stockpile of critical personal protective equipment. We need a national inventory of critical medical equipment, gear and supplies, just as we have “war reserve” stocks of fuel and ammunition. Stockpiles can be stored on secure military bases, including those that were decommissioned in the last round of the Base Realignment and Closure review and are now essentially empty. The military is very good at inventory management and storage, and this would be a logical place to begin.


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