Militaries will have to strike a delicate balance between juggling domestic obligations and external security threats.
By Luke Coffey – The rapid spread of the coronavirus has dominated news headlines all around the world. Tragic images and heartbreaking stories emerging from places like China, South Korea, Iran and Italy have started to focus on governments in other countries to take more robust measures.
While most of the attention has been focused on the virus’ impact on health policy and the economy — and rightfully so — there are security implications resulting from the spread that policymakers must consider. This is particularly true of countries in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Especially for the US with its large military presence around the world in places where coronavirus rates are high like South Korea, Japan, and Italy.
In NATO’s most recent Strategic Concept — an official policy document that is supposed to go to guide the alliance to prepare for future threats — there’s not even a single mention of the word “pandemic”.
Luckily, many of the countries inside NATO address this issue in their national security and defence strategy documents.
For example, the United Kingdom has a global health security section in its most recent security and defence strategy. The threat from pandemics even gets a mention in the foreword written for the document by the prime minister.
The Trump Administration’s National Security Strategy published in 2017 has a section titled “Combat Bio Threats and Pandemics”.
The most recent French white paper on defence and national security also recognises the threats posed from global health issues and pandemics.
There are three areas that NATO and its member states need to keep close attention on in the coming months pertaining to the spread of the coronavirus.
First is the issue of health and welfare of service personnel and their families. It is important that militaries are healthy and fit.
During an international pandemic, this is perhaps the single most important thing for the Armed Forces. Obviously the widespread nature of the coronavirus presents challenges.
The coronavirus does not discriminate between ranks.
Inside NATO there have already been two high profile cases of senior generals testing positive for the virus. The Chief of Staff of the Italian Army, Salvatore Farina, and the Head of the Polish Armed Forces, Jarosław Mika, have both tested positive.
General Mika recently attended a high-level conference in southern Germany where he came into contact with other senior military officers including the commander of the US Army in Europe — although it’s not clear if anyone else at the meeting contracted the virus.
Large numbers of US soldiers are based in Spain, Italy, and southern Germany all of which are coronavirus hotspots. US military bases in these regions have essentially closed and there have been examples of family members and service members testing positive for the virus.
There has even been at least one confirmed case of the coronavirus at NATO headquarters in Brussels. A large military base in Northern Norway near the border with Russia was put on lockdown after a Norwegian soldier tested positive for the coronavirus and another 1,300 soldiers were put into quarantine.
A second major focus area is maintaining levels of military readiness. Militaries rely on training. If they cannot train then they will be less prepared to fight. So far, it seems that the spread of coronavirus throughout Europe is impacting readiness on both a strategic and a tactical level.
On the strategic level, major NATO exercises are being cancelled or curtailed.
A major exercise in Norway focused on arctic security called “Exercise Cold Response 20” was recently cancelled. This exercise was supposed to involve 15,000 NATO troops.
Another major exercise called “Defender Europe 20” was curtailed because of the coronavirus outbreak. This exercise was originally billed as the largest since the mid-1990s.
On the tactical level, if soldiers can’t do basic training such as going to the rifle range because they are restricted to military bases or to the barracks, then their readiness levels go down. This also leads to low morale.
Fortunately, cancelled exercises can always be rescheduled.
Finally, NATO and its members cannot lose strategic focus. Due to the wide-scale disruption that the coronavirus has caused throughout Europe and in some places in North America, much of the focus of policymakers has been on responding to the domestic crisis. This is completely understandable.
In some cases, the military has played or is planning to play, a role. Some US Army National Guard units in at least six US states have been activated.
In the UK, officers of the Royal Logistics Corps have been involved in local response plans for the coronavirus.
When Norway decided to cancel it’s Cold Response 20 exercise the excuse given by one of its top generals was “we would rather preserve our armies combat capabilities so we can support society in the turbulent period to come.”
So if the militaries of NATO are focused on domestic response there is less time, energy, and resources available to focus on the other threats to the Alliance.
As the recent rocket attack on the US in British troops in Iraq and Turkey’s military operations in northern Syria reminds us, coronavirus or not, there are still military security challenges that have to be dealt with.
This means that governments inside NATO have a challenge to maintaining the levels of readiness and resources required to meet national defence objectives while ensuring the health and welfare of their service members.
This is no easy thing to balance. The longer this global pandemic lasts, the more difficult this balance will be for policymakers.
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