Small Wars Journal

The Covid-19 Crisis and Future US National Security

Thu, 04/16/2020 - 6:23pm

The Covid-19 Crisis and Future US National Security

Joseph J. Collins

I have been sick since mid-March.

No, I don’t have the Covid-19 virus, thank God, but I have had a month-long bout of nausea, anxiety, and mental discomfort. It is not the first time I had this condition. It began the first time on September 11, 2001 on the lawn adjacent to the Pentagon helipad. In the past month and the weeks after 9/11, both illnesses were caused by the frustration of knowing that, after spending hundreds of billions of dollars in the name of national security, the United States of America was again caught looking in the wrong direction at horrendous cost in blood and treasure. The US national security establishment has failed again.

In the last 20 years, we have twice suffered strategic surprise attacks. In each case, we were unprepared for what was an entirely foreseeable attack on the homeland. In each case, the national security bureaucracy --- Defense, State, Intelligence, and various homeland security entities --- paid inadequate attention to preparing for an event that its own Cassandras had declared as probable. In each case, hundreds of billions were spent on traditional, old fashioned missions and equipment, while inadequate sums were spent on preparing to fight the smaller but more vicious wolves closest to the sled. In each case, Americans died by the thousands on their own soil. In each case, we then spent trillions of dollars to combat the ill effects of an attack that could have been prevented or otherwise defeated.

We can do much better in securing our nation, but only if we open the aperture of national security and see the future problem set in all of its dimensions. With a severely damaged economy, the well-funded Pentagon is likely to be the biggest loser in the changes that will inevitably follow as the pursuit of national security expands beyond traditional national defense missions.

The Current Crisis

April 13, 2020 was an unheralded milestone. The Covid-19 pandemic in six weeks killed over 22,000 Americans, more than twice the number of Americans killed on 9/11 and in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that took place over the span of two decades. We are easily in sight of the sad day where we will lose more Americans to Covid-19 than we did in the Korean War.

Adding to this tragedy is the sad fact that most of our Covid-19 dead passed without their loved ones by their side. In New York City and other urban areas, the sight of makeshift morgues in refrigerated trailers haunts the nation. Nightly, the appearance on television of battle-weary doctors and nurses, some with inadequate protective gear, brings our blood to a boil and breaks our collective heart.

The United States had adequate warnings of a potential pandemic. The Swine Flu, SARS in various forms, and the Ebola virus events were all prior warnings to keep our guard up, our scientific agencies well-funded, our testing apparatus in fine tune, our personal protective equipment and ventilator stockpiles full, and our interagency “battle staffs” in good order. The last three US presidential administrations did almost none of these things.

Solid warnings of the danger of a pandemic came in early January, but rather than nipping the pandemic in the bud,  President Trump, with the exception of the partial China travel ban, failed to act decisively in January and February despite  repeated early warnings. According to a New York Times analysis:

Throughout January, as Mr. Trump repeatedly played down the seriousness of the virus and focused on other issues, an array of figures inside his government … identified the threat, sounded alarms and made clear the need for aggressive action. The President, though, was slow to absorb the scale of the risk and to act accordingly, focusing instead on controlling the message, protecting gains in the economy, and batting away warnings from senior officials. It was a problem, he said, that had come out of nowhere and could not have been foreseen.[1]

By mid-March, the President became fully engaged in battling the virus, but by then it was too late to get out ahead of its spread. The United States now has more acknowledged infections than any country in the world. The apparent global death experience[2] --- the number of deaths divided by the total number of identified cases --- is in excess of 6 percent. On April 15th, the American death experience, has edged up to 4.3 percent.

Nations that acted early with rapid testing, tracing, and social distancing --- South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, and Germany, for example --- have achieved much better results than the United States has. Nations that reacted slower than the United States had worse results. For example, Italy’s death experience is over 12 percent, and Spain appears to be in similar trouble. In all, by Johns Hopkins-managed numbers published daily on CNN, by April 15th, there have been 2 million cases globally, with the United States accounting for more than 610,000 of the identified cases. (As is so often the case in global events, we cannot get the truth out of Russia or China.)

Changes Ahead

The human and financial costs of this pandemic suggest that significant changes are ahead for the U.S. national security establishment and the national strategy. National security must become the guiding principle, not just national defense. Defending the homeland means nuclear deterrence and defeating terrorists, but it also means defeating or ameliorating pandemics, dealing with climate change, and blocking the smuggling of narcotics. The following are but a few of the most likely changes that appear to be on the horizon. They may not all take place next year, but they are in the category of the nearly inevitable.

There will be much less money for traditional national defense programs at a time when the defense workload is great, and the federal budget already has a trillion-dollar deficit each year.  The Pentagon will face significant resource challenges. It will have to adapt quickly and make deep, near-term cuts.

With at least 22 million Americans unemployed, tens of thousands of small businesses on the brink of bankruptcy, and numerous major corporations in need of bailouts, the federal government --- already beset by large budget deficits --- has spent additional trillions to send checks to individuals and make concessionary loans to businesses. At the same time, tax receipts will shrink from the economic slowdown. As the economy begins to recover, all cabinet departments are going to help to pay these huge bills in FY 2021 and beyond. To make things worse, the clamor for “more stimulus” (and greater budget deficits) will be hard for this and the next administration to ignore.

The President will likely ask the Department of Defense to cut deeply into its next $700 billion+ budget request. With high optempo and demanding threats --- China, Russia, North Korea, Iran, wars in Afghanistan and against terrorists in numerous countries --- the Pentagon in all likelihood will have to cut spending deeply and (even worse) rapidly. It will hurt and not just for one budget cycle. The whole FYDP is under a cloud.

The Armed Forces will get smaller, optempo will likely go down, procurement will be cut back, and readiness spending will likely go down. At the same time, each of the services will likely have to shed manpower, the best way to rapidly cut expenses. Moving more capabilities into the reserve components will be a terrific way to save money, streamline active forces, and preserve capabilities for better days.

The Services rightly have tremendous duplication of capabilities.  Which of these capabilities could be eliminated in favor of accepting more risk?  For example, are there tradeoffs to be made among the services with their 3,311 fighter aircraft and 889 attack helicopters.[3] Can squadrons be eliminated or shifted into the reserves? Should we economize by eliminating MARSOC and putting those manpower billets back into an already shrinking Marine Corps? What new systems can be reduced in favor of service life extension programs for older but proven systems? Can we move even faster to a greater reliance on cheaper Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs)?

Over the past few decades, America’s foreign policy has often led with the military. It would be wise in this time of adjustment to put the State Department back in the lead.  Diplomacy can help to dampen international competition, save money, and relieve stress on a Pentagon that will be under tremendous budget pressure. While long-term competition with China and Russia will continue to have priority in the Pentagon, diplomatic initiatives could lessen the heat from Iran and North Korea, both of which are suffering mightily from Covid-19. Increasingly, many irregular warfare missions can be handled under train, advise, and assist, as opposed to getting US troops involved. The concept of by, with, and through local indigenous forces is already mature and should be maintained.  US troops strength in Afghanistan and the Middle East should come down.

This would be an opportune time to make better use of our allies on low risk missions and to put more of the burden of collective defense on them. At the same time, the anti-alliance side of “America First” should be retired forever.  We should save harsh words for our adversaries, not our allies. In a similar vein, we could lean more heavily on international organizations, like the World Health Organization, the World Food Program, and UN peacekeepers to take up the slack.  While we pay the lion’s share of their budgets, in the end, with careful oversight they can internationalize efforts, promote useful sharing of information, and save US resources.

The United States must prepare for pandemics and integrate climate change into its strategic planning processes. Non-traditional defense missions, such as support to civil authorities in pandemics, deserve greater attention.

We have seen the folly of keeping pandemic stockpiles and readiness at a low level. As battle staffs maintain peacetime readiness, coordinating elements for pandemics need to be on full time duty.  Stockpiles must be filled. No state or federal entity can benefit from images of ventilator shortages or nurses wearing garbage bags instead of appropriate personal protective equipment.

We need a national pandemic plan. As we wargame military and terrorist attacks on the homeland, we need also to game pandemic responses so states do not end up competing for resources on a crowded international market. The results of those games should be used to refine the national plan. As in most successful federal plans, centralized planning and decentralized execution is likely to be the right formula for the federal-state-local response.

Support to civil authority missions need continuous reassessment and reinforcement. To do this, we need to make sure that National Guard personnel called to extended, active state or federal duty have access to TRICARE resources and support as necessary from the Army Medical Department. No Guardsman should ever have to worry about personal or family healthcare while on extended federal or state service. That said, both NORTHCOM and various state National Guard units have performed well, as did their active duty supporters from the Navy’s hospital ships and the Army Corps of Engineers.

The United States needs a blue-ribbon commission to assess performance and outcomes in the Covid-19 crisis.

Crises in the United States from Pearl Harbor to 9/11 have generated major, commission-led studies.  The Covid-19 crisis will require an epidemiological, medical, and policy review.  It will have international, federal, and state dimensions. There isn’t room in this paper to map out such a complicated effort, but the Covid-19 crisis will rank with major wars in its effect on the United States. It will be years before we have it in our nation’s rear view mirror, and decades before we can no longer feel its crushing effects.

In summary, we were slow to gain our footing in this crisis, and we have suffered more cases of Covid-19 virus than any other country in the world. The disease has had horrendous costs in blood and treasure, compounded by its ill effects on our nation due to social distancing an a stalled economy. Our future efforts at national security must be broader than traditional national defense programs. Resource shortages will severely complicate Defense’s challenging agenda in the years ahead. As we did after al Qaeda’s attack on 9/11, a key step in regaining our footing will be to conduct a national, commission-led investigation into this crisis, not to assess blame, but to promote future national security.


End Notes

[1]Eric Lipton, David Sanger, Maggie Haberman, Michael Shear, Mark Mazetti, and Julian Barnes, “He Could Have Seen What Was Coming: Behind Trump’s Failure on the Virus,” New York Times, April 11, 2020, 1.

[2]The actual death rates for Covid-19 will have to account for the total infected, those that died at home without being identified, as well as those who survived.  The apparent death experience rate shown here is simply the ratio of deaths to those formally identified as suffering from Covid-19.

[3]IISS, The Military Balance 2020 (London: Routledge for IISS, Feb. 2020), 27.

Categories: national security

About the Author(s)

Joseph J. Collins, a retired Army Colonel, served DoD in and out of uniform for four decades.  His decade plus in the Pentagon was capped off by service as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Stability Operations, 2001-04. He taught for 25 years at West Point and the National War College, and for more than two decades in Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program. He is an author in and co-editor (with Richard Hooker) of Lessons Encountered: Learning from the Long War, NDU Press, 2015. Collins is a life member of the Council on Foreign Relations and holds a doctorate in Political Science from Columbia University.