COVID-19: An Opportunity for Strategic Reassessment?

COVID-19:  An Opportunity for Strategic Reassessment?
AP Photo/Jeff Roberson, File

In March 2020, President Trump declared the United States a nation “at war with an invisible enemy” that will have long-lasting economic, social, and security implications, even after the medical emergency is over.[1] His proclamation is reminiscent of the 9/11 terror attacks, where the nation was shocked by an unanticipated threat against the homeland. Those horrendous assaults transformed the country, and the U.S. soon embarked upon an almost two-decades-long Global War on Terrorism in response. Mr. Trump has lauded Americans as warriors and acknowledged their necessary sacrifices to overcome the health crisis and reopen the much-beleaguered economy. Meanwhile, critics argue that Washington should have been ready for the coronavirus given previous outbreaks including the 2009 swine flu, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, and Ebola. Instead, a Wall Street Journal investigation found that the U.S. government “focused more on preparing for terrorism than for a pandemic.”[2]

The Trump administration initially struggled to provide a coordinated whole-of-government response in the face of rising infections and fatalities within the United States. Consequently, state governors have taken a lead role in addressing the health crisis across the country.[3] To be sure, the establishment of the Coronavirus Task Force better enabled the administration to monitor, contain, and mitigate the spread of the virus. Moreover, subject matter experts such as Doctors Anthony Fauci and Deborah Birx participated in White House briefings to add credibility and inform the American public.

Despite these actions, there is some support on Capitol Hill for a 9/11-style commission to investigate the overall response to the health crisis.[4] While such proposals are politically controversial, the U.S. government should nevertheless find a non-partisan, fact-based mechanism to determine what happened, capture lessons learned, and make recommendations regarding public health, the economy, and continuity of basic services. Regardless of how well or poorly the coronavirus was handled in this instance, an independent evaluation is necessary to better prepare the country for future pandemics. Moreover, the Department of Defense should review the 2018 National Defense Strategy to determine its relevance in a globally persistent novel coronavirus environment.[5]

Coronavirus and the Department of Defense Response

As part of the Trump administration’s coronavirus response efforts, the Department of Defense deployed the United States Navy hospital ships Comfort and Mercy to New York City and Los Angeles; enlisted the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to construct temporary medical facilities; directed expeditionary field hospitals and thousands of medical specialists to infectious disease hotspots; delivered much-needed medical supplies; and activated tens of thousands of Air and Army National Guardsmen to support civil authorities across the country.[6] Unfortunately, these actions were often ad hoc and highlight the need for formalized decision-making processes and tailored organizations to employ these high-demand/low-density capabilities more effectively during future global pandemics.

Despite a relatively young and fit population compared with the rest of the country, the Department of Defense is not immune to the detrimental effects of the coronavirus. Thousands of service members have been infected with the pathogen, and the services have implemented social distancing and other risk mitigation efforts to protect the force. Unfortunately, the resultant disruptions in military deployments, movement of personnel, training, and recruiting programs negatively affect the Department’s readiness. Moreover, the global pandemic has strained civil-military relations, as demonstrated during the highly publicized firing of the commander of a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier and subsequent resignation of the Secretary of the Navy.[7]

Sailors assigned to the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt depart the ship April 10, 2020. (Petty Officer 1st Class Chris Liaghat/U.S. Navy Photo)

The 2017 National Security Strategy describes the requirement to “combat biothreats and pandemics” including “naturally emerging outbreaks of viruses” such as Ebola and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome.[8] However, none of the eleven 2018 National Defense Strategy objectives explicitly require the military to prepare for or respond to global pandemics.[9] Given the tremendous human and economic toll exacted by the coronavirus, the threat of global pandemics should be prioritized commensurate with more traditional challenges such as the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, interstate rivalry, and terrorism.

Budgetary Implications

Although the coronavirus has caused internal turmoil and placed additional requirements on the Department of Defense, it is unlikely to receive a larger budget in the coming years, regardless of which candidate occupies the White House after the 2020 presidential election. In addition to the trillions of dollars required to protect and restart the economy, the nation’s hospitals, research laboratories, and other health-related infrastructure will require substantial financial investment to effectively respond to another wave of infections or other public health crises. Moreover, outgoing administrator for the United States Agency for International Development Mark Green argues the coronavirus pandemic underscores the importance of providing foreign assistance for global health organizations as part of a long-term strategy.[10]

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith said, “The economics of this get much more complicated than they were before this [global pandemic], and it's logical to assume that we are going to have to reevaluate our entire budget, both revenue and expenditures.”[11] Recognizing the fiscal implications of the pandemic, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper is rightly concerned the national debt will lead to smaller defense budgets in the future.[12]

As previously discussed, the military brings robust capabilities to the fight against the invisible enemy: planning, research, medical personnel and equipment, and logistics to name a few. While the Department of Defense has hitherto been able to meet its medical requirements and provide defense support to civilian authorities, this may not be the case during a second wave or in a future global pandemic. What if the next occurrence requires additional capacity in the homeland? Worse, what if concurrent military operations abroad place greater demands on available medical capabilities and supplies? Where should the Department make tradeoffs, given competing requirements in a resource-constrained environment? For example, should the U.S. Navy build more hospital ships or warships?

With such strategic and economic uncertainty, Todd Harrison persuasively argues now is the time for the Department of Defense to identify its crown jewels—the top priorities that need to be protected to execute the 2018 National Defense Strategy.[13] While this is a prudent recommendation, what if the strategy itself is no longer adequate to ensure national security in a coronavirus world? David Sanger contends the “defense lobbying establishment” has spent billions of dollars “setting up a land- and space-based sensor system to detect adversary missile launches, and comparatively little push to build a global surveillance system for emerging viruses.”[14] Such investment would have arguably enabled a more rapid and effective response to the coronavirus pandemic.

The 2017 National Security Strategy describes the requirement to “combat biothreats and pandemics” including “naturally emerging outbreaks of viruses” such as Ebola and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome.[8] However, none of the eleven 2018 National Defense Strategy objectives explicitly require the military to prepare for or respond to global pandemics.[9] Given the tremendous human and economic toll exacted by the coronavirus, the threat of global pandemics should be prioritized commensurate with more traditional challenges such as the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, interstate rivalry, and terrorism.

Budgetary Implications

Although the coronavirus has caused internal turmoil and placed additional requirements on the Department of Defense, it is unlikely to receive a larger budget in the coming years, regardless of which candidate occupies the White House after the 2020 presidential election. In addition to the trillions of dollars required to protect and restart the economy, the nation’s hospitals, research laboratories, and other health-related infrastructure will require substantial financial investment to effectively respond to another wave of infections or other public health crises. Moreover, outgoing administrator for the United States Agency for International Development Mark Green argues the coronavirus pandemic underscores the importance of providing foreign assistance for global health organizations as part of a long-term strategy.[10]

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith said, “The economics of this get much more complicated than they were before this [global pandemic], and it's logical to assume that we are going to have to reevaluate our entire budget, both revenue and expenditures.”[11] Recognizing the fiscal implications of the pandemic, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper is rightly concerned the national debt will lead to smaller defense budgets in the future.[12]

As previously discussed, the military brings robust capabilities to the fight against the invisible enemy: planning, research, medical personnel and equipment, and logistics to name a few. While the Department of Defense has hitherto been able to meet its medical requirements and provide defense support to civilian authorities, this may not be the case during a second wave or in a future global pandemic. What if the next occurrence requires additional capacity in the homeland? Worse, what if concurrent military operations abroad place greater demands on available medical capabilities and supplies? Where should the Department make tradeoffs, given competing requirements in a resource-constrained environment? For example, should the U.S. Navy build more hospital ships or warships?

With such strategic and economic uncertainty, Todd Harrison persuasively argues now is the time for the Department of Defense to identify its crown jewels—the top priorities that need to be protected to execute the 2018 National Defense Strategy.[13] While this is a prudent recommendation, what if the strategy itself is no longer adequate to ensure national security in a coronavirus world? David Sanger contends the “defense lobbying establishment” has spent billions of dollars “setting up a land- and space-based sensor system to detect adversary missile launches, and comparatively little push to build a global surveillance system for emerging viruses.”[14] Such investment would have arguably enabled a more rapid and effective response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Army and Air Force National Guard personnel packing boxes of food in Tacoma, WA, during the coronavirus pandemic. (Ruth Fremson/The New York Times)

Competing Department of Defense Requirements: Lessons Learned from the Global War on Terrorism and the Littoral Combat Ship

The global health crisis accentuates the importance of balancing competing requirements for the joint force. For the Department of Defense, this is not a novel concept, but a recurring task that is often more art than science. As an example, the 9/11 attacks rendered extant strategies largely moot and forced a complete reassessment of the United States’ strategy, concepts, and capability requirements for the Global War on Terrorism. The latter includes the Littoral Combat Ship, and its evolution provides an instructive case study for senior leaders as they consider the Department’s way ahead in a coronavirus world.

In 2008, then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates published a National Defense Strategy that directed, “For the foreseeable future, winning the Long War against violent extremist movements will be the central objective” of the United States.[15] While U.S. military forces largely prosecuted the war on terrorism ashore, the 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review also discussed the importance of littoral regions to these operations.[16] The Littoral Combat Ship seemed tailor-made for this mission, offering a fast, modular, relatively inexpensive small surface combatant designed to meet then-Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Vern Clark’s 2004 vision for “our naval forces to dominate the near land battlespace and provide access for our nation's joint warfighting team. The Littoral Combat Ship will deliver capabilities to enable our Navy to dominate in this critical littoral region.”[17] Additionally, the ships fulfilled many geographic combatant command’s peacetime engagement and partnership-building requirements that were essential elements of the 2008 National Defense Strategy and maritime strategy.

Despite these attributes, James Holmes asks if it is time to admit the Littoral Combat Ship program is “a beautiful disaster”?[18] While these vessels were well-suited to support the Global War on Terrorism’s inland focus against non-state actors such as al Qaeda and the Islamic State, in 2012 President Obama issued a new strategy titled Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense. The document codified the administration’s goals to end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and rebalance towards the Asia-Pacific region.[19] The strategy also directed the Department to “invest as required to ensure its ability to operate effectively in anti-access and area denial environments.”[20] These high-end operations will be conducted against sophisticated state actors in a maritime environment and represent a significant departure from earlier strategic direction.

Deputy Secretary of Defense Ash Carter and Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus on the flight deck of USS Freedom (LCS-1) in 2012. (DoD Photo)

The defense strategic guidance also created a rare public disagreement between Secretary of Defense Ash Carter and Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus over future investment in the naval fleet. The dispute centered around a presence-versus-posture argument, where senior leadership sought the correct balance between the high-end systems necessary to fight and win in an anti-access and area denial environment and simultaneously meeting the expanding forward presence requirements of U.S. geographic combatant commands.[21] Mabus considered the ability to provide forward presence “the most important accomplishment that we’ve had” during his tenure because it “reassures our allies and deters adversaries. There is no next best thing to being there.”[22] By contrast, Carter argued the military is “first and foremost a warfighting force,” and the U.S. Navy’s strategic future “requires focusing more on posture, not only on presence, and more on new capabilities, not only ship numbers.”[23]

Robert Martinage argues the Littoral Combat Ship became a lightning rod in that debate “because while it is useful for the former [forward presence], it offers comparatively little for the latter [lethality].”[24] The increased cost of the ships over the years likely exacerbated the controversy. The episode culminated in Carter issuing a formal letter directing the U.S. Navy to reduce the Littoral Combat Ship program from 52 to 40 vessels—a significant decrease in a relatively short time frame.[25]

…the coronavirus has produced an inflection point and a potential catalyst for change similar to the 9/11 attacks and the ensuing Global War on Terrorism.

What lessons from the Littoral Combat Ship experience are relevant to the Department of Defense response to the coronavirus pandemic? An important insight is how capabilities optimized for one strategy are not easily—if at all—transferable to another. When this occurs, senior leaders must be willing to make difficult tradeoffs, despite sunk costs or planned investment. The Pentagon may soon face such challenges once again as it balances opportunity costs, specifically the capabilities required to effectively respond to future global pandemics against current 2018 National Defense Strategy priorities in a resource-constrained environment. The Littoral Combat Ship saga also demonstrates that such calculations are never easy and rarely result in consensus. That said, the coronavirus has produced an inflection point and a potential catalyst for change similar to the 9/11 attacks and the ensuing Global War on Terrorism.

Conclusion

While the coronavirus has understandably focused national attention on pandemics and public health, as a global power the U.S. must be able to simultaneously confront multiple challenges to its interests worldwide. Secretary Esper expressed concern that strategic competitors such as China and Russia will attempt to exploit the pandemic to advance their interests.[26] Despite widespread criticism for its behavior during the coronavirus outbreak, there are no indications that Beijing is abandoning its regional objectives or wider global aspirations.[27] This has heightened tensions between the U.S. and China and increased concerns about a “new Cold War.”[28]

Effectively responding to this confluence of events will require creative thinking across the United States national security apparatus. Moreover, addressing difficult questions such as the Department’s role in a global pandemic and its priority relative to other requirements is a challenging but necessary task for senior leaders as they consider potential modifications to the 2018 National Defense Strategy going forward. The current health crisis captured the public’s attention and provides a rare opportunity for policymakers and legislators to fundamentally reassess threats, revise national strategies and related policies accordingly, and make investments in the correct mix of required capabilities to provide a more proactive, coordinated, and robust response to future security challenges.


Jim Cook is a Professor of National Security Affairs at the U.S. Naval War College. The views expressed here are entirely his own and do not reflect those of the U.S. Naval War College, the Department of Defense, or the United States Government.


This article appeared originally at Strategy Bridge.

Notes:

[1] Trump, Donald. @realDonaldTrump. 2020. “I want all Americans to understand: we are at war with an invisible enemy, but that enemy is no match for the spirit and resolve of the American people…” Twitter, March 18, 2020, 3:14 pm. https://twitter.com/realdonaldtrump/status/1240355985673392128

[2] Alexandra Berzon, Melanie Evans, Stephanie Armour and Austen Hufford, “Miscalculation at Every Level Left U.S. Unequipped to Fight Coronavirus: A shortfall in masks lays bare the blunders by hospitals, manufacturers and the federal government,” The Wall Street Journal, April 29, 2020, https://www.wsj.com/articles/miscalculation-at-every-level-left-u-s-unequipped-to-fight-coronavirus-11588170921

[3] Jonathan Martin and Alexander Burns, “Once Political B-Listers, Governors Lead Nation’s Coronavirus Response,” The New York Times, March 17, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/17/us/politics/governors-coronavirus-trump.html

[4] Egan, Lauren, “Support grows in the House for a 9/11-style commission on coronavirus response,” NBC News, 3 April 2020, https://www.nbcnews.com/politics/congress/support-grows-house-9-11-style-commission-coronavirus-response-n1176441

[5] Britzky, Haley, “Leaked Pentagon memo warns of 'real possibility' of COVID-19 resurgence, vaccine not coming until summer 2021,” Task and Purpose, 19 May 2020, https://taskandpurpose.com/news/coronavirus-vaccine-pentagon-memo

[6] Department of Defense, “Department of Defense COVID-19 Response,” 27 May 2020, https://media.defense.gov/2020/Apr/28/2002290387/-1/-1/1/DEPARTMENT-OF-DEFENSE-COVID-19-RESPONSE-INFOGRAPHIC.pdf

[7] Kenney, Caitlin M., “Captain of USS Roosevelt relieved of command after letter about coronavirus outbreak was leaked,” Stars and Stripes, 2 April 2020, https://www.stripes.com/news/us/captain-of-uss-roosevelt-relieved-of-command-after-letter-about-coronavirus-outbreak-was-leaked-1.624691

[8] The White House, National Security Strategy of the United States of America, December 2017, p. 9.

[9] Mattis, James, Summary of the 2018 National Defense Strategy of the United States of America, p. 4.

[10] Gramer, Robbie, “Outgoing USAID Chief Says Pandemic Underscores Importance of Foreign Aid,” Foreign Policy, April 13, 2020, https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/04/13/usaid-coronavirus-pandemic-foreign-aid-trump-mark-green-development-global-health/?utm_source=PostUp&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=20941&utm_term=Flashpoints%20OC

[11] Kheel, Rebecca, “Defense budget brawl looms after pandemic, The Hill, May 3, 2020, https://thehill.com/policy/defense/495762-defense-budget-brawl-looms-after-pandemic?utm_source=Sailthru&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=EBB%2005.04.20&utm_term=Editorial%20-%20Early%20Bird%20Brief

[12] Werner, Ben, “ECDEF Esper Preparing For Future Defense Spending Cuts,’ USNI News, May 4, 2020, https://news.usni.org/2020/05/04/secdef-esper-preparing-for-future-defense-spending-cuts?utm_source=Sailthru&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=EBB%2005.05.20&utm_term=Editorial%20-%20Early%20Bird%20Brief

[13] Harrison, Todd, “DoD must identify its ‘crown jewels’ in preparation for fiscal uncertainty,’ Defense News, April 15, 2020, https://www.defensenews.com/opinion/commentary/2020/04/15/dod-must-identify-its-crown-jewels-in-preparation-for-fiscal-troubles/

[14] Sanger, David E., “Analysis: Will Pandemic Make Trump Rethink National Security?,” The New York Times, April 15, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/15/us/politics/coronavirus-trump-national-security.html

[15] Gates, Robert, National Defense Strategy, June 2008, p. 7.

[16] Department of Defense, Quadrennial Defense Review Report, February 2010, p. 20.

[17] Department of the Navy, “Navy Announces Flight 0 Littoral Combat Ship Contract Option Awards,” May 28, 2004, https://www.navy.mil/submit/display.asp?story_id=13544

[18] Holmes, James, “The U.S. Navy's Littoral Combat Ship: A Beautiful Disaster?,” The National Interest, February 17, 2020, https://nationalinterest.org/blog/buzz/us-navys-littoral-combat-ship-beautiful-disaster-123256

[19] Department of Defense, Sustaining Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense, January 2012, p. 2.

[20] Ibid, p. 4.

[21] LaGrone, Sam, “Carter’s Rebuke of Navy Budget Proposal Points to Split Between Service, DoD Priorities,” USNI News, December 18, 2015, https://news.usni.org/2015/12/17/carters-rebuke-of-navy-budget-propsoal-points-to-split-between-service-dod-priorities

[22] Freedburg, Sydney J., “Navy’s Dilemma: What Kind of Presence?” Breaking Defense, January 19, 2016, https://breakingdefense.com/2016/01/navys-dilemma-what-kind-of-presence/

[23] Carter, Ash, “Memorandum For Secretary of the Navy: Navy Program Balance,” Military Times, December 14, 2015, p.1. https://ec.militarytimes.com/static/pdfs/OSD-Carter-memo-to-Mabus-151214-cut-LCS.pdf

[24] Freedburg, Sydney J., “Navy’s Dilemma: What Kind of Presence?” Breaking Defense, January 19, 2016, https://breakingdefense.com/2016/01/navys-dilemma-what-kind-of-presence/ 

[25] Carter, Ash, “Memorandum For Secretary of the Navy: Navy Program Balance,” Military Times, December 14, 2015, p.1.

[26] Segreti, Giulia, “China, Russia take advantage of virus emergency, U.S defense secretary says,” Reuters, April 14, 2020, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-coronavirus-usa-security/china-russia-take-advantage-of-virus-emergency-u-s-defense-secretary-says-idUSKBN22G0OT

[27] Erlanger, Steven, “Global Backlash Builds Against China Over Coronavirus,” The New York Times, June 17, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/03/world/europe/backlash-china-coronavirus.html

[28] Finbarr Bermingham and Cissy Zhou, “Coronavirus: China and US in ‘new Cold War’ as relations hit lowest point in ‘more than 40 years’, spurred on by pandemic,” South China Morning Post, https://www.scmp.com/economy/china-economy/article/3082968/coronavirus-china-us-new-cold-war-relations-hit-lowest-point

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