Shortburst: COVID-19, the role of the military, NATO, opportunistic threats, military budgets, and much more!

Centers for Disease Control

A Shortburst” is a Lawfire®feature you will see occasionally, and it aims to give you a quick volley of info on a number of items. Today’s post is the result of some questions a European reporter asked me about the military and the COVID-19  pandemic.  Below is a lightly-edited version of what I responded to his questions, with some additional commentary in brackets.

  • Why do you think it’s a bad idea to use the military in a pandemic? Don’t they have useful manpower and vehicles that can provide help like building field hospitals?

[I don’t think it’s necessarily a “bad idea” to use the military, per se; it can and should be part of the overall effort.  Rather, my concern is about the temptation to ‘militarize’ the response. Take a look at this March 19 post, Why militarizing the coronavirus response is a bad idea…for now anyway.”] 

The military does have capabilities useful in a pandemic, but often those capabilities are only sized for military purposes, and are not designed to be a substitute for public hospitals and other civilian capabilities for the general populace.

The more a military is used for a pandemic, the less manpower and equipment is available to deal with the pandemic threat within its own ranks, but also to defend against the kind of external threats it primarily exists to counter.

There is also a civil-military relations aspect.  Militaries are by their very nature authoritarian and non-democratic.  While their use is often welcomed by the public at the start of an emergency, that positive attitude can fray as time goes on – especially in a democracy.  A public whose lives are disrupted by the pandemic – and who are increasingly fearful of it – may look for an outlet for their frustrations and find government an easy target for criticism.  The military, fairly or unfairly, might become caught up in that almost inevitable ‘blame game.” [See e.g., here].

In short, at some point – and this pandemic crisis may be a long one – it is possible the public may come to resent the military and, especially, its directive style.  This may particularly be so if the military is used for quarantine enforcement.  It’s never really a good thing for a democracy for tensions to escalate between the military and the public it is supposed to serve and defend.

  • What consequences can it have right now for the US and its NATO allies to focus their militaries in solving the pandemic?

As the US and NATO allies increasingly use their militaries to address the pandemic crisis, the risk is that those militaries will be less focused on terrorism and nation-state threats.  It is a serious mistake to think that adversaries of all kinds are not at this very moment looking for ways to exploit the crisis for their own nefarious purposes.

Governments and their militaries need to be especially concerned about cyber-attacks right now.  As people are forced to stay in their homes, they are increasingly dependent upon the internet to get news, to work remotely, to continue their children’s education and theirs, to stay in touch with friends and family, and much more.

Both state and non-state actors may see this increased dependence on the cybersphere as a vulnerability to be exploited if they can.  The resulting chaos could be devastating, so it’s vital that both military and civilian cyber defenses remain fully alert, and ready to respond. 

Everyone ought to engage in some resilience planning in the event web services become degraded or disrupted.  Even more concerning is the fact that a major cyber-attack could not just interrupt home internet availability, but key government capabilities – including medical services – could be disrupted.  Vital utilities like electricity, gas, and water could be compromised.

  • What consequences can it have in the next years? Can their military power or their nuclear deterrent lose grip?

I don’t think there is any danger that those military forces who have nuclear capabilities will lose their grip on them.  However, the ability to counter conventional military threats may decline as resources are consumed for pandemic relief, regular military training is delayed and disrupted, and military recruiting becomes more difficult.  It will be a period of increased risk that will have to be very carefully managed.

  • Can we expect US and its NATO allies to invest less on Defense in the coming afters because of the huge economic losses?

I think it is quite possible that the US and its allies will spend less on defense, but not necessarily.  It could be that many governments will find that the military is essential in emergency situations, and will want that capability to remain strong. 

However, investments in high-cost weapons may decline as governments could want the spending to go to the things they found useful in the pandemic: field hospitals, protective gear, communications equipment, engineering capabilities, vehicles and so forth.

Warfighting systems – fighter jets, tanks, and naval vessels – may become ‘bill payers’ in the sense that they will be cut in favor of [spending on] other military capabilities or more general government requirements.

A concluding observation for Lawfire® readers:

Our nation continues to adapt and modify its responses to COVID-19 based on evolving data and the threat it poses to our country’s greatest resource – its people.  The military is providing appropriate and significant assistance in many key areas – sometimes getting little media attention.  But, while the military is masterful at crisis management and assistance, its primary goal is to defend the country and keep our nation safe from the many external threats still extant in the world today.  Staying strong and nimble enough to do that in a powerful way is essential.

Remember what we like to say on Lawfire®: gather the facts, examine the law, evaluate the arguments – and then decide for yourself!


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