Secrecy News

The Military Role in Combating COVID-19

There is a bewildering amount of official guidance on the role of the military in circumstances such as the current pandemic. But the practical impact of that guidance, whatever it may be, is unclear. Like the proverbial war plan that cannot survive first contact with the enemy, Pentagon doctrine on infectious disease seems to have been overtaken by events.

“The mission of DOD in a pandemic is to preserve U.S. combat capabilities and readiness and to support U.S. government efforts to save lives, reduce human suffering, and slow the spread of infection,” according to a 2019 Army manual.

To help accomplish that, another military manual offered a “prioritized and tiered [list of] infectious diseases [to] assist the military research community in focusing on the development of vaccine, prophylactic drugs, diagnostic capabilities, and surveillance efforts.”

Pandemic influenza was among the highest priority diseases, posing a “high operational risk,” but unfortunately the intended military research response appears to have lagged.

Who is in charge?

Well, “USNORTHCOM [US Northern Command] exercises coordinating authority for planning of DOD efforts in support of the USG response to pandemic influenza and infectious disease,” says a Pentagon publication (JP 3-40) on Joint Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction.

What is NORTHCOM doing?

“DoD has nearly 11,000 personnel dedicated to COVID-19 operations nation-wide, with nearly 2,500 in the New York City area,” according to an April 10 news release. “DOD is providing expeditionary medical care in several states across the country.”

“NORTHCOM is out there working furiously to carry out its many missions, implementing at least five different operations plans simultaneously,” according to military researcher William M. Arkin.

But “Implementing might be too strong of a word,” he wrote, “because even though these plans run in the hundreds of pages, most are thrown out the window almost as soon as they are taken off the shelf, useful in laying out how things should be organized but otherwise too rigid — or fanciful — to apply to the real world.”

In a new piece, Arkin surveyed 19 operational military plans that in theory govern NORTHCOM activities. Most of them are not publicly available, and some are classified.

“Is there any reason you can imagine that the pandemic response plan shouldn’t be public? Or the plan for Defense Support of Civil Authorities?” Arkin doesn’t think so.

One of the plans he turned up, a 2017 NORTHCOM draft on Pandemic Influenza and Infectious Disease Response, identified what it termed “critical vulnerabilities” including:

“Lack of communication and synchronization among partners and stakeholders, inability or unwillingness to share information / biosurveillance data, limited detection capabilities, and limited laboratory confirmatory testing.”

That particular plan from 2017 “seemingly never went beyond the draft stage,” said Arkin.

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