US military poised for post-pandemic shift

COVID-19 likely to force reordering of priorities, practices and policies

The coronavirus pandemic will likely stir debate over how much more of the Pentagon’s budget should go toward buttressing “human security” issues such as health.  (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
The coronavirus pandemic will likely stir debate over how much more of the Pentagon’s budget should go toward buttressing “human security” issues such as health. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted May 4, 2020 at 1:25pm

The novel coronavirus pandemic may soon lead to big changes in the U.S. military.

COVID-19 has torn apart U.S. society so much that it is redefining national security, defense and what constitutes a threat — and ultimately will force a reordering of military priorities, practices and policies, some experts argue.

As of last week, the disease has killed — in less than three months — more Americans than perished in 14 years of war in Vietnam. The percentage of jobless U.S. citizens is expected to near Great Depression levels. COVID-19’s impact in lost lives and livelihoods has already dwarfed that of the 2001 terrorist attacks.

“The last time the United States faced this kind of a major threat, one that has been this disruptive to the nation, was the Second World War,” said David Barno, a retired Army lieutenant general who once commanded U.S. and coalition troops in Afghanistan.

Against this backdrop, an increasingly vocal chorus of experts says, the U.S. military cannot proceed with business as usual. It should probably spend less overall and certainly less in particular on heavy weapons, overseas deployments, excess infrastructure and large active-duty units, the critics say.

Warheads and ventilators

The U.S. national security apparatus, with its roughly $750 billion annual budget, has contributed to the COVID-19 response but has been powerless to block the disease or do much to ameliorate the damage. As a result, some Americans are asking what their expensive, high-tech military is good for, if it cannot protect citizens from the most devastating of perils. 

To be sure, many of those critics opposed high defense spending and large deployments before the pandemic, just as many hawks’ positions on the budget will not change despite the pandemic. 

But those who want to see U.S. national security spending cut, or at least reoriented to some degree toward nontraditional threats, appear to have been emboldened by the new reality.

That view was captured in a recent tweet by Ro Khanna, a California Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee: “A single F-35 could pay for 2,200 ventilators, 1 nuclear warhead could pay for 17 million masks,” he said. 

But the critics will have a fight on their hands. 

Many Americans and their representatives in Congress are still worried about terrorists, Chinese and Russian aggression, and North Korean and Iranian missiles. They still want a military that can beat those threats. 

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Tom Spoehr, another retired Army lieutenant general who is now an analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation, warned of the danger of over-correcting and endangering spending needed to deter or combat foes such as China and Russia. 

“We can’t be like the kids’ soccer team, where everyone runs to the ball,” he said.

Likewise, Susanna Blume, a former Pentagon planner who is now with the Center for a New American Security, said: “The security challenges we have faced prior to the COVID-19 pandemic have not gone away.”

Looking inward

But foreign enemies, whatever the likelihood they will threaten Americans, are for the most part less lethal or economically destructive than pandemics, due partly to the defenses the U.S. military has in place.

The emerging debate is not a matter of: either health security or military security. Rather, the question is one of degree: How much more of the federal budget, including the Pentagon’s part, should go to buttress what the intelligence community calls “human security” issues such as health?

The job of public health will not move completely, or even mostly, to the Defense Department, though the armed services are expected to take on a beefed-up role in that mission. [See sidebar].

Rather, the most sweeping changes are expected to involve scaling back certain traditional military missions, not only because of altered perceptions about threats but also due to budget pressures that follow from a depressed economy and trillions in new national debt. 

The shift in priorities could mean fewer troops deployed abroad and a reinforced trend toward isolationism, some analysts say.

And if the Defense Department is somewhat less focused on the weapons of other militaries or terrorist groups, then starting or continuing major weapons programs may prove to be harder to sell in Congress. 

“Those overseas, heavy-iron deployments of U.S. ships, aircraft and troops can be leaped over by threats that go directly to the homeland, riding in cyberspace, in outer space also, obviously, in the biological domain,” said Barno, who is now affiliated with the Johns Hopkins School for Advanced International Studies. 

While some planned weapons projects could be canceled, Pentagon attempts to retire existing aircraft and other systems may be even harder to accomplish than usual in the near term, because these programs support local jobs at a time when those are scarce, several analysts have observed. 

Also getting more attention amid the pandemic is where the parts in U.S. weapons come from. The new coronavirus outbreak has highlighted the concentration of some key medical supplies, mainly in China, and the longstanding concern in the U.S.national security circles about supply chain security — whether for protective equipment or weapons — is gaining new steam, said Eric Fanning, CEO of the Aerospace Industries Association, a leading industry lobbying group.   

Additionally, National Guard and Reserve personnel may increasingly supplant active-duty forces, accelerating a post-9/11 trend, many experts say. That is because reservists are less expensive and often more seasoned in cyber, medical and other skills from the civilian sector that are at a premium.  

The Guard and Reserve units are also more embedded in communities where diseases start and must be addressed. 

Mathew Burrows, a former director of the U.S. National Intelligence Council, compares this effort to the law enforcement monitoring of possible terrorist activity at the local level in the United States. 

“Just as they did with terrorism, where they developed these cells in the states and key cities, you’ll also have an effort to coordinate a lot more on health with the states and the cities,” said Burrows, now an analyst with the Atlantic Council.

‘Bad actors’ and biowar

Looking ahead, U.S. national strategy documents may be revised to focus more on invisible foes, including not only disease but also threats to the cyber and space realms, which have proved indispensable during the global lockdown, these analysts predict. Climate change will create other challenges.

“The next National Defense Strategy could continue to address China and Russia and also take into consideration non-kinetic threats like cybersecurity, space, and bioweapons,” said Fanning, who worked as Army secretary and acting Air Force secretary during the Obama administration.

The Heritage Foundation’s Spoehr, an expert on biological weapons, agrees that biological weapons will gain more scrutiny in the years ahead.

The COVID-19 outbreak “raises this idea in bad actors’ heads,” Spoehr said. “It is going to provoke the United States to take this more seriously.” 

Whenever the Office of the Director of National Intelligence provides a new version of its public testimony on worldwide threats, perhaps later this year, naturally occurring pandemics may well rise in prominence above their place on the 2019 list, when they were mentioned as a subset of the 10th and final threat.

More pandemics likely

Any changes in U.S. military organizations and budgets could be slowed by a number of forces. One is resistance from makers of traditional weapons and congressional defenders of certain bases or factories. 

Another is crisis fatigue. The public and politicians will expend considerable energy during and just after the current pandemic merely to reduce death and revive the economy, and may not have the bandwidth to make more lasting changes. 

People tend to return to complacency after a major crisis has receded, and that could happen again, said J. Stephen Morrison, director of the Global Health Policy Center at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Of course, a military attack on U.S. soil would also refocus Americans on such threats. But it may take more than it has in the past for Americans to respond to aggression overseas.

On the other hand, what would put afterburners on the changes is if the coronavirus turns out to be just one in a series of pandemics. Epidemiologists say more such events are increasingly likely, due to residents of the world’s largest cities coming in closer contact with animal diseases, increased international travel and climate change’s effects.

“The world we live in is generating more and more of these dangerous pathogens that can travel more rapidly and have a very high impact,” Morrison said. “Now, with this pandemic, there will be a widespread consensus that these threats cut directly to the national security of the United States — to the integrity of our institutions, the integrity of our economy and the health and welfare of our people.”