The Military Response to COVID-19: Create JTF COVID

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I think my biggest achievement was being part of a team of outstanding, entrepreneurial military leaders and civilians who helped change the way in which America fights by transforming a global special operations task force - Task Force 714 - that I commanded. - General Stanley McChrystal 

The U.S. military’s response to the coronavirus pandemic thus far remains episodic and localized. While leaders struggle to determine how best to use military resources in a coordinated effort to assist with the medical crisis, each individual branch of the United States Armed Forces is – at press time – left to its own devices as to how and what to contribute. This is further complicated when we fold the National Guard into the equation, which is responsible jointly to the overall Department of Defense but also accountable to state governors. Although each region, state, and city has different needs, given the nature of the crisis, a series of independent efforts will simultaneously strain common resources while missing efficiencies that a coordinated effort will leverage. A unified federal effort is required to better coordinate and use the nation’s 1.2 million active duty service members and 800,000 reservists to assist in the response. 

Fortunately, the United States has a tried-and-true playbook for unifying efforts in crises such as this – the Joint Task Force, or JTF. Secretary of Defense Esper should immediately establish a JTF – under the Coronavirus Task Force – to integrate the activities of military operations, unify command and coordinate effort. Governors should maintain control over their state's National Guard to coordinate with other local functions, such as public schools or law enforcement, but could leverage the JTF to coordinate the overall federal response as necessary.

The Navy recently activated its two hospital ships, sending the USNS Mercy to the West Coast while accelerating repairs to the USNS Comfort for rapid deployment to New York City. Individual states have mobilized National Guard soldiers and airmen across the country for support functions to include moving supplies or building and preparing ad-hoc medical facilities. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has called upon assistance from the Army Corps of Engineers to convert hotels and dormitories into makeshift hospitals. Air Force C-17’s have been used to transport test swabs and other supplies to areas in need. Although each of these efforts is noble in their own regard, they will not have the overall impact that a coordinated, synergized response from military resources that a JTF would facilitate.

The U.S. military has a long, proven history of establishing a JTF when the “scope, complexity, or other factors of an operation require the capabilities of services from at least two military departments.” Once established, its commander directs operations by assigning missions to apportioned forces, prioritizing and allocating military resources, and assessing and taking risks.

The U.S. response to the T?hoku earthquake and tsunami and Fukushima nuclear disaster – Operation Tomodachi – provides a recent example of quickly standing up a JTF to help address a crisis. Three days after a massive earthquake and tsunami struck Japan, killing and displacing thousands and damaging the Fukushima nuclear power plant, U.S. Pacific Command (PACOM) established two separate Joint Task Forces (JTF-505 and JTF-519) to coordinate various aspects of U.S. military, government, and non-government operations in response to the crisis. The fusion of a traditional humanitarian and natural disaster with a nuclear dimension made Operation Tomodachi all the more challenging. But when the operation completed 42 days later, the military response had involved more than 24,000 servicemembers, 189 aircraft, and 24 naval ships, and countless lives were saved. The JTF was a critical aspect of the military command structure that enabled this disaster relief operation to be conducted so effectively.

Closer to home, the coordinated government response to Hurricane Katrina demonstrated the efficacy of establishing a joint military command structure. While individual Governors maintained control of national guard forces, the JTF under LTG Honore established unity of effort, apportioned resources, and set priorities for the response.

There are key similarities between the responses required for the Fukushima nuclear disaster,  Hurricane Katrina, and the COVID-19 crisis. Each was unprecedented in recent times, although arguably, the current crisis has given leaders ample time to think about and prepare for an appropriate response. COVID-19 brings together the worst attributes of these events, a biologically dangerous vector on American soil.

Helping the nation combat COVID-19 may be strikingly similar to what we learned overseas, and our experiences may provide far more applicable lessons to prepare the force than originally thought. The capability to move large amounts of goods and government services through a hazardous environment is one that our military has acquired over the past nearly two decades at war. DoD is remarkably well positioned to be of service.

This is not the war we want, but it's the war we have. Considering the impact on American society and the potential casualties across the population, it has the potential to be as much of a historical event as the Spanish Flu – or the second World War. For perspective, WWII cost 4.2 trillion (inflation adjusted dollars). The U.S. is set to pass a 2 trillion dollar relief package – and we are just at the beginning. When viewed through this lens, COVID-19 is very much the 'war' that U.S. forces are participating in – not necessarily the one they planned and trained for.

Harrison Schramm has been a leader in the Operations Research community for the past decade. Prior to joining CSBA, he had a successful career in the US Navy, where he served as a Helicopter Pilot, Military Assistant Professor at the Naval Postgraduate School, and as a lead Operations Research Analyst in the Pentagon. His areas of emphasis were large-scale simulation models, statistics, optimization, and applied probability. His current research is at the intersection of data, mathematical models, and policy. 

Kevin Chlan is the 2019/20 Navy Fellow assigned to CSBA as a part of the Federal Executive Fellowship program.

Peter Kouretsos is an analyst for CSBA, and his work focuses on U.S. defense policy and strategy, long term competition, future warfare, and Western Hemisphere security.

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