Amid the escalating COVID-19 pandemic, countries around the world are facing widespread disruptions to not only the health of their populations and economies, but their militaries. Even if the virus itself doesn't leave key personnel severely ill (or worse), quarantine measures can still severely thwart military operations. Meanwhile, military powers such as the United States may increasingly be forced to deploy additional forces to the frontlines of unfolding COVID-19 outbreaks at home. The resulting fallout could, in turn, result in setbacks in the fight against multiple non-state actors abroad, and potentially even the long-term development of military capabilities.
For many states, the military serves as a critical instrument of policymaking and national security, and is thus often vital in mitigating widespread crises such as the COVID-19 outbreak. But military forces are also by no means immune to the direct health impacts or the indirect financial fallout of pandemics, which risk disrupting military operations and the development of new capabilities.
The requirement to isolate forces — and possibly even their families when living on base — to contain the virus will have the most direct impact on military readiness. This first became apparent in South Korea, when an infection was identified within a U.S. military base. Even if the disease itself does not spread too widely through a country’s military itself (and leave personnel severely ill or worse), precautionary quarantine and social distancing measures can rapidly disrupt a significant portion of military activities that normally depend on operations in larger numbers and direct interaction. The first disruptions of this kind are already notable in operational theaters such as Iraq, where the United States recently repositioned its troops into a smaller number of bases (in part to limit their exposure to COVID-19), and where Dutch and British forces also suspending training activities with local Iraqi forces for similar reasons. U.S. forces also recently limited their engagement in the long-planned Defender Europe exercise, which had been intended to be the largest simultaneous deployment of U.S. forces to Europe in over 25 years.
In addition to isolation efforts, the potential for substantial COVID-19 outbreak within military formations in the field presents complex consequences as well. Such an outbreak could incapacitate not only the ability to conduct active operations, but the ability of affected units to continue operating. It could also prompt a medical response requirement that they cannot locally meet. This is especially true for smaller and remote deployments, of which there are many still operating under the "global war on terror." With troops falling ill and others engaged in caring for them, it may become infeasible for even deployed units to guarantee their own security at a reliable degree. Although most military personnel less likely to fall severely ill due to their youth and fitness level, serious cases of COVID-19 would still be statistically expected to occur within the military, making containment efforts necessary.
Even if COVID-19 doesn't leave personnel severely ill (or worse), measures to contain and respond to the outbreak can still leave militaries less equipped to manage emerging security threats elsewhere.
For some military operations, such as those of naval forces, quarantine efforts may be easier than for others. Italy, for example, was quick to quarantine two of its naval vessels early on in the development of the COVID-19 crisis, and the U.S. Navy also recently adopted the practice of limiting port calls and leaving at least 14 days of self-quarantine between port visits. By avoiding port calls and self-quarantining at sea, the chance of external infections is radically lowered but not entirely removed, as illustrated by the recent diagnosis of three sailors on board the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt after a port visit to Vietnam.
In the case of infections in the close quarters of a naval vessel, however, the disease could spread rapidly, as evidenced by the COVID-19 infections reported on cruise ships. And medical facilities onboard may not be able to sufficiently treat the number of patients requiring intensive care. This again will raise logistical challenges in the form of outside assistance or evacuations. Crews of operational vessels also can’t simply be swapped out, or would at least require thorough disinfection that may not be feasible to carry out at sea (this is particularly true for nuclear submarine fleets, which, while relatively isolated, can’t be considered entirely immune to outbreaks). Vessels affected by an outbreak would likely become operationally unavailable as a result, potentially temporarily reducing maritime capabilities in certain areas of operations.
Similar disruptions could also arise from highly specialized but limited military assets. In addition to medical units, the ranks of fighter pilots, special operations forces, specialized technical support staff and contractors will also not be invulnerable to infection or quarantine efforts. A loss in operational readiness from these units will have very direct consequences on the overall capabilities for the U.S. military and its allies, in particular, in the short term. These units are not only critical to U.S.-led counterterrorism efforts, but also in providing response capacity in various international hotspots around the world, including North Korea, Iran, Syria and regions near Russia's border.
The COVID-19 outbreak also appears to be moving across the globe in sequence, beginning first with those countries closest to China (the initial epicenter). North Korea, for example, is already starting to revive its military exercises in March, after largely being on lock-down during January and February. The United States, meanwhile, has just begun implementing widespread lockdown measures. The difference in timing and impact — with signs that China is now getting over the peak of the crisis, just as the United States is gearing up for an expected surge of COVID-19 cases — could also create temporary windows of opportunity for some countries in their own regional theaters. If military response capacity becomes severely limited, even if only in a particular theater, the calculations of policymakers on both sides will be significantly restricted by the reduction in available means or potential unintended consequences in terms of spreading infections or exposing troops.
Risks Beyond Warfighting
The potential impact from COVID-19, however, will not be limited to immediate operational deployments. In aiding states to ramp up their capacity to quickly respond to the disease's spread and the medical consequences, military formations are increasingly becoming mobilized to assist first responders and to enforce quarantine measures. Italy, Germany, and France, for example, have started to lean on military personnel to set up additional medical facilities and transport the infected, among a long list of other responsibilities. As the crisis worsens, large formations will become unavailable for the defense of the homeland or potential deployments. This may not necessarily alter the military balance between states, as it appears that the COVID-19 crisis hasn't so far spared any military power. Russia, for example, has halted its exercises in border regions as a precaution against COVID-19 exposure, despite suffering from many fewer identified cases than NATO countries.
In addition to military capacity geared toward balancing against other states, operations against insurgent groups and terrorist cells will be severely disrupted. Due to their asymmetric nature, these militant organizations will also not be facing the same kind of burden and responsibility of the state due to the pandemic. As troops are deployed in a COVID-19 response capacity, or have to cancel training exercises or operational preparations, the ability to rotate forces into the relevant theaters could temporarily grind to a halt. Even where capacity isn’t an issue, deploying forces overseas and returning others carries a great risk of spreading infections (either from their home bases to combat theaters or vice versa). The West African Ebola crisis of 2014-16 illustrated this risk, as peacekeepers became unable to rotate in and out of unaffected regions in Africa for fear of spreading the disease.
The economic impact of the pandemic will also affect the defense industry and military budgets long after the immediate COVID-19 outbreak subsides. Particularly the military aerospace sector, which overlaps significantly with the civilian aerospace industry, could face a significant setback due to the accruing damage to the global airline industry. Other aspects of the defense industry will be affected as well, as social distancing prevents travel, collaboration and even testing of new developments. This will impose delays and cost overruns on ongoing projects. The U.S. Air Force's Advanced Battle Management System, for one, has already postponed testing from April until June due to COVID-19. Naval shipyards have also suspended work in countries such as Italy and Canada, which could delay deliveries of new naval vessels and disrupt the maintenance of existing ones for the duration of the outbreak.
The financial risk resulting from these disruptions will be further increased by the potential for economies to contract in the wake of measures to contain the outbreak, which will likely also impact defense spending in many countries. This does not mean that defense budgets will necessarily contract, though depending on the particular spending priorities of individual countries, such an outcome can not be ruled out. Constricted budgets will also lead to internal shifting of resources, and potential accelerations of plans to reduce or withdraw forces from overseas locations.
Between these long-term impacts on the development of military capabilities (such as budgetary trends or disruptions of development efforts), as well as short-term disruptions to operational theaters, pandemics such as COVID-19 carry a risk of granting a temporary free pass to the activities of non-state actors across the world, and possibly even a permanent setback in many active theaters. The essential nature of military forces in conducting foreign and domestic security policies, as well as their role in directly supporting humanitarian response efforts, make them one of the key vulnerabilities of modern states at a time of pandemics.