Mackenzie Eaglen on “5 Lessons the U.S. Military Learned From the Pandemic”

Today’s guest essayist is my friend Mackenzie Eaglen from the American Enterprise Institute.  One of the nation’s top analysts of defense issues, she explores lessons the U.S. military has already learned from the pandemic.  (I would suggest they are lessons any organization ought to want to learn.)  Importantly, she indicates that in order to benefit from these lessons-learned, they need to be incorporated into the Department of Defense as an institution. Ms. Eaglen has a clear and cogent writing style that I believe Lawfire® readers will find quite engaging. (The photos and illustrations are my ‘adds.’)

5 Lessons the U.S. Military Learned From the Pandemic

Mackenzie Eaglen

Since the Covid-19 pandemic started spreading in the United States, Pentagon leaders have been scrambling to adjust and adapt their three workforces that total four million people. Nearly one million defense civilians and active duty servicemembers are teleworking. Shipbuilders and other defense manufacturers that closed or reduced staff early on in the pandemic are rebuilding their capacity. Commanders are slowly lifting restrictions on troop movement and change of duty station.

The Defense Department as an institution needs to incorporate critical lessons learned from this pandemic to ensure it is more ready to fight through the next infectious disease. Here are five lessons that are already emerging.  

U.S. Forces Korea “Safety Bubbles 

While the Pentagon’s early response to Covid-19 suffered from some delays and confusion, U.S. Forces Korea served as a diametric example of an effective military response as the pandemic began to spread. By late January, the Army already recognized that U.S. Forces Korea (USFK) was the gold standard for controlling the virus.

Gen. Abrams

In March, General Robert Abrams, Commander of USFK, described the early actions that his command took – including setting up a 24/7 operations center to monitor the situation, tracking employees who had travelled through mainland China, raising health protection conditions on post, developing communication plans, requiring self-quarantines, and undertaking additional precautions as the virus spread.

Later, Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy would describe the response of USFK as “the pacing item for the Department.” 

Lesson 1: apply best practices faster and uniformly.

Two Ships With Two Very Different Outcomes 

The Navy’s handling of the Covid outbreak on the USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71) aircraft carrier and subsequent firing of its captain caused widespread controversy and contributed to doubts about the Pentagon’s initial response. After more than 1,000 sailors on the Roosevelt tested positive for the virus and the ship made an impromptu stop in Guam to disembark and quarantine its crew, one sailor died of complications.

USS Kidd

Still, the Navy was able to avoid a similar upheaval in the case of the USS Kidd (DDG-100) by implementing new prevention measures. When heading from Pearl Harbor to the Pacific, the USS Kidd did a short quarantine-in-isolation drill, which proved prescient. When sailors aboard the Kidd tested positive for the coronavirus in April, the Navy was able to provide nearly immediate medical support, conduct testing, and get the ship back to port for additional aid and quarantine. There were no hospitalizations.

Lesson 2: don’t make the same mistake twice.

Socially Distant, Small Group Focused Basic Training  

A new recruit with Kilo Company, 3rd Recruit Training Battalion, is issued gear after arriving at Marine Corps Recruit Depot, San Diego, June 15, 2020. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Brooke C. Woods)

Basic training and boot camp class sizes were dramatically reduced early in the pandemic. As the classes have steadily increased, commanders now test every class member coming in each week. Typically, an average class of 300 to 400 recruits identify one infected person upon entry.

All are pre-screened with questionnaires and thermometers. Those sick are quarantined and treated. As the units move to training and become a “quaran-team,” healthy groups are kept together and outsider interaction is limited. While going through training, such as obstacle courses, they are socially distant when possible and all wear face coverings.

Kemberly Groue/Air Force

As a result, the services have seen a dramatic decline in the coronavirus spread. Additionally, it has prevented the spread of other respiratory tract infections. This has resulted in a steep drop in sick call and a higher number of recruits available for daily training.

Lesson 3: common sense procedures will also prevent other illnesses like the flu from taking down large units.

Streamlined Processes Because of Telework

When new directives came in for non-essential personnel to work from home as the pandemic spread, the Pentagon was caught in a bind. Much of the work is understandably classified and teleworking introduces a host of risks. The Pentagon’s IT system was also not designed to support this level of remote work. As a result, non-essential personnel were entering the building to forge ahead on projects like the budget design.

(Photo: April Gail Pilgrim, Army)

This year, even in spite of the virus, Pentagon leaders wanted on-time budget and program reviews. Instead of retaining the same amount of work and delaying the plan, the Deputy Secretary of Defense eliminated some procedural steps. Instead of logging classified figures into a database in June, refreshing it and resubmitting it in the fall, there is no longer data submission; only a high-level review of the issues.

Removing steps to reduce the workload is the right answer and should continue after the pandemic.

Lesson 4: always search for opportunities to reduce workload while still achieving the same  outcomes.

Protecting Essential Workers Building Military Machines and  Software 

As the economy ground to a painful halt this year, many small businesses in the defense industrial base suffered along with the rest of private sector. These companies typically do not have the slack to bounce back after closing or partially closing due to the pandemic. In a system designed for efficiency over resiliency, prime defense contractors found their vendors and suppliers can fail remarkably fast absent full staff and liquidity.

When the $2.2 trillion CARES Act was signed into law, it contained $10.5 billion for additional defense spending. It also granted the department greater flexibility over the use of alternative funding sources for the defense industrial base, like allowing accelerated progress payments to contractors and easing restrictions on defense contractors under Undefinitized Contract Actions.

Lesson 5: communicate with Congress early and often to get results that save essential jobs.  

New developments in the pandemic, and the country, will continue to force the U.S. military to be flexible. While the Department of Defense is a bureaucratic behemoth and rapid change can be hard to achieve, the organization is adapting in real-time to infectious disease. Sharp after-action reviews and sound strategies can protect the Department from learning the same lessons more than one painful and public time.

The Pentagon should continue to reflect on how additional best practices can be improved across the force over the next several months. When the next disease arrives – or indeed, Covid-19 resurges – the U.S. military must be ready.  

BioMackenzie Eaglen (@MEaglen) is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, where she works on defense strategy, defense budgets, and military readiness. She has also served as a staff member on the 2018 National Defense Strategy Commission and is a member of the US Army War College board of visitors.

Prior to joining AEI, she worked on defense issues in the House of Representatives, in the U.S. Senate, and at the Pentagon in the Office of the Secretary of Defense and on the Joint Staff.

The views expressed by guest authors do not necessarily reflect those of the Center on Law, Ethics and National Security, or Duke University.

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

You may also like...