Nations around the globe are facing an unconventional threat that has spread fear and panic everywhere—changing the global agenda, halting the world economy, and forcing hundreds of millions of people to go under lockdown. So far, this threat has killed close to 120,000 people and infected almost 2 million around the world.
The notorious enemy is a vicious, treacherous, and invisible virus. It is made up of particles with a diameter of 0.125 microns, and its name is COVID-19. This type of coronavirus is zootonic, meaning it can transmit from animals to humans. Since it is codependent, it searches for a human host and once it infiltrates the human body, it launches a search and match mission where the virus looks for cells with compatible receptors. When the suitable cell is located, the virus hacks it and turns it into a factory that has only one mission, which is to replicate itself.
The most dangerous advantage of the coronavirus is that once it colonizes the body, it can weaponize it to spread among others.
Typically, fighting something that you can’t see is almost mission impossible. Yet, when it comes to COVID-19, the invisibility is not the scariest characteristic of the virus. The most dangerous advantage of this virus is that once it colonizes the human body, it can weaponize it and use the host to spread more of the virus among other people, using an exponential growth method to trigger a chain reaction that would be hard to stop especially if protective measures are not taken in an early stage.
Governments around the world were caught unprepared to counter this kind of threat. To assist in enforcing measures that would help contain this vicious virus, many of them called upon their armed forces. During troubled times, professional armies might have several advantages. They are disciplined, well organized, can work with short notice, have resources that can swiftly be mobilized, and can crisis manage situations while under pressure. In this sense, they can lend a useful hand to overwhelmed health sectors and governments.
Armies are disciplined, well organized, can work with short notice, have resources, and can crisis manage under pressure.
Professional armies are critical also when it comes to logistics. They can spread engineering units to help build medical centers, deploy rapid field hospitals, or even send their medics in to assist. In other situations, they can support civilian governments to swiftly execute their emergency measures, control crowds, enforce curfews, assist other institutions and civil services, and secure critical facilities.
Jordan was one of the first countries to deploy its armed forces as a part of drastic measures to contain the coronavirus. King Abdullah activated the Defense Act enabling the army to deploy and secure the entry and exit areas of key cities, and enforce their lockdown. In Italy and Spain, thousands of troops were called upon to enforce lockdowns, help with logistics, set up field hospitals, and assist civilian institutions in easing the load of the high number of coronavirus victims. Military planes helped to return European citizens from abroad, carried patients from one country to another, delivered medical equipment, and so on.
Italy and Spain called on troops to enforce lockdowns, help with logistics, set up field hospitals, and assist civilian institutions.
The Italian army for example, provided 7,000 beds and medical staff support. The German army deployed 15,000 soldiers to help support federal states and local authorities and called reservists to provide medical and logistical support. In Poland, 9,000 military personnel were involved in the efforts to contain the coronavirus. The Swedish army provided 50 intensive care units (ICUs) and 90 medical sites. In Hungry, the defense ministry deployed army teams to help 84 strategic companies in connection with the novel coronavirus and secure critical facilities.
In the UK, the British military doubled the size of its civil contingency unit to 20,000 troops to assist public services in response to the coronavirus outbreak. UK Defense Secretary Ben Wallace said that the armed forces stand ready to protect Britain and its citizens from all threats, including COVID-19. The country took measures to enable reservists to be called upon, and scientists from the Defense Science and Technology Laboratory to support Public Health England in understanding the coronavirus and tackle its spread.
The U.S. army was tasked to deploy two hospital ships to ease the burden on state hospitals and expand bed capacity.
In the U.S., which has the most powerful army in the world, more than 17,250 National Guard troops have been deployed in all 50 states and territories. President Trump invoked the Defense Production Act and the army was tasked to deploy two hospital ships to ease the burden on state hospitals and expand bed capacity, send engineering units, arrange field hospitals, and provide additional resources and personnel to help the country combat the virus. The U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) provided five million N95 respirator masks and other protective equipment to the government for distribution, along with 2,000 ventilators, and also opened its 16 labs for civilian experts to process COVID-19 tests.
Armies are not Immune!
Despite their unique capacity and efforts, armed forces around the world are not immune to COVID-19 either. Just like the virus doesn’t recognize borders between states, it doesn’t distinguish between civilian and military facilities or personnel. The virus already managed to reach strategic areas on land, water, and under the ocean—hitting bases, aircraft carriers, navy ships, and even submarines.
Many armies around the world have been hit by COVID-19. In Egypt, two army generals died and at least 550 soldiers were reportedly infected. Several army chiefs have tested positive for COVID-19 including the Chief of General Staff of Italy, Poland, the Philippines, and Nigeria. U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper and his Deputy David Norquist have been placed under quarantine as a protective measure.
The U.S. Department of Defense announced 1,405 of its members were infected with COVID-19 and thousands were in quarantine.
As of April 1, DOD announced that 1,405 of its members were infected with the virus and thousands of U.S. military personnel were put in quarantine or self-isolation in Europe and the Middle East. The U.S. Navy will remove more than half of the 5,000 crew members from its USS Theodore Roosevelt aircraft carrier to quarters in Guam after 93 of its crew tested positive. When it comes to France, the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle had to return early to home port after 40 of its crew members showed symptoms of COVID-19 infection.
In Russia, the entire crew of two nuclear submarines has reportedly been quarantined after indirect contact with a case of COVID-19. In a similar situation, a Dutch submarine had the same fate because eight of the crew caught the virus.
As a result, armed forces in several countries are scrambling to counter the untraditional enemy in a two-front war. While professional armies are useful in helping their governments to contain the virus, asking them to assist in such matters is not a risk-free process.
While professional armies are useful in helping their governments to contain the virus, it is not a risk-free process.
The main task of professional armies is to fight a war and defeat an enemy by either destroying him or forcing him to surrender. Some might argue that we are not at war with the virus and armies shouldn’t be involved in a health crisis because this can hinder the readiness of the armed forces, undermine their ability to respond to physical threats, and shift critical assets away from the main theaters, thus, allowing adversaries to seize the opportunity to advance their geopolitical interests. China, Russia, Iran, and even minor players like the Assad regime in Syria, Khalifa Haftar’s LNA in Libya, and radical and terrorist groups around the world are always ready to seize such opportunity, even in pandemic times.
A case in point is Iran. Despite being hit hard by COVID-19, resulting in a high number of fatalities among civilians, officials, and military members, Tehran prioritized its regional agenda over the well-being of its citizens. Recently, it escalated the regional tensions via its pro-Islamic Revolution Guard Corps (IRGC) militias, killing American and British soldiers by attacking military bases in Iraq, recruiting 9,000 militia fighters in the south and northeast parts of Syria, flying drones from Lebanon to Israel, and firing missiles from Yemen against Saudi Arabia.
Despite being hit hard by COVID-19, Iran prioritized its regional agenda over the well-being of its citizens.
Such actions will not only question the readiness of modern armies to fight wars on several fronts in the future, but also whether they will be able to cope with the security challenges created by an untraditional enemy such as a pandemic.