When I was Commander of U.S. Southern Command, in charge of all military operations south of the United States, I was lucky enough to break my Admiral’s Flag in USNS COMFORT, the massive U.S. Navy hospital ship. Now COMFORT and her sister ship MERCY are soon to deploy to the east and west coast respectively of the United States to render assistance in the fight against COVID-19.
Both ships are highly capable – 70,000 tons, a thousand hospital beds, and 1,200 medical professionals in addition to the Navy sailors who actually operate the ship. They are flexible and can travel hundreds of miles a day, giving them the ability to shift from port to port. In Latin America, the ships did a wide range of work, often conducting 400,000 patient treatments in a typical voyage. In fighting the current virus, their mission will be to supplement the hospitals ashore, bringing capability to bear so local medical facilities are not overwhelmed. They are a good example of what the military can do in the face of crisis.
What else can our 1.2 million active duty and 800,000 national guard and reserves do?
An important caveat: the military’s first order of business must be to maintain its own health and capability so we can ensure our national security remains strong. We cannot have coronavirus bring down our strategic nuclear forces, and our Navy ships must be ready to sail on combat missions. The Army and Air Force know that the challenges of Iran and North Korea are not going to be put on pause while we fight coronavirus. So job one will be keeping the force healthy and ready to conduct prompt and sustained combat operations.
But even given that first priority, there is a great deal the military can do immediately and over the longer term, in addition to the deployment of hospital ships:
- Medical research and development. These are core military functions, particularly in terms of biowarfare and biodefense. Military expertise and supplies for protective gear can be critical. Fort Detrick in Maryland, for example, is a center of biological capability for research and operational deployment of equipment to operate in a dangerous bio environment. The military is also highly connected to the academic world, including through major labs such as Johns Hopkins Advanced Physics Lab, where I am a Senior Fellow. They can marshal enormous capability to integrate and synthesize broad biological research.
- Industrial capability. There are 300,000 businesses working with the Department of Defense in the Defense Industrial Base. These are highly capable, innovative companies whose research, production, and delivery capabilities can be tapped in everything from vaccine production to manufacturing face masks. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), for example, has advanced research in many fields of relevance to this effort. The Defense Production Act, which President Trump says he may invoke, streamlines the ability to shift production toward relevant materials.
- Logistics and critical infrastructure. Our Air Force is flying missions moving medical supplies from overseas to the U.S., while the Army National Guard is trucking parts across the country. The Navy’s aircraft carriers and large-deck amphibious ships can provide medical overflow support, as the latter did during Hurricane Katrina. The military can help bring U.S. citizens home from overseas and provide containment and isolation facilities at hundreds of bases across the country. Military capability in sanitation, electrical generation, water purification, and information technology will be helpful.
- Civil support to population. As in New Rochelle outside New York City, the National Guard (under control of the New York governor), has been conducting drive-through testing, delivering food and water to non-mobile portions of the population, and preparing sites for possible hospital overflow situations. This is a classic and well-practiced function of the Guard, particularly after natural disasters.
- Law enforcement and control of civil populations. While active duty personnel are appropriately precluded from conducting law enforcement by the Posse Comitatus laws, the National Guard (when under the direction of state governors) can do so. This may be important to enforce curfews, quarantines, and security of supply chains.
- Border control. If the virus causes panic in Latin America and the Caribbean, we may need to establish stronger control of U.S. borders to prevent a refugee surge from the south. Border patrol and other civil agencies could be overwhelmed, and the military can provide a backstop to such efforts.
- Information operations. Our military is expert at monitoring a wide variety of operational scenarios, and the ability to gather, process, and analyze intelligence is highly relevant in dealing with pandemics. Military intelligence can also be effectively used in creating strategic communications campaigns to help calm the public here in the US and develop counter-narratives to false allegations emanating from abroad (for example Chinese comments that the virus originated with the U.S. Army).
- Interagency cooperation. Finally, the Department of Defense is the largest and most integrated part of the entire US government interagency. It has deep experience in working with DHS, FEMA, DoJ, Border Patrol, INS, DEA, DoS, CIA, and every other part of the sprawling US government. Given its size and experience, it is a logical place to look for integration, team-building, and structuring the “whole of government” approach the Administration says it seeks.
Certainly the military is not a panacea. There is no single lever that the President can pull to solve this challenge. But our military – for which we collectively pay $700 billion annually – can be a significant part of the fight against this “invisible army.” It is a fight we must win.
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