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Coronavirus ramifications for the military and future conflicts | Francis Marion
Source: U.S. Army photo by Gertrud Zach

Coronavirus ramifications for the military and future conflicts | Francis Marion

The coronavirus is presenting challenges to militaries around the world who are not only in the middle of combat operations but also fighting a virus.  It begs the question, how do militaries protect their countries when they cannot even protect the force?  If one looks to the past, during the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic, the world was in the midst of the “War to End All Wars” and the virus affected troops in training and the massive movement of soldiers around the world.  In fact, the war was like an accelerant for the virus.  40% of all U.S. Army and Navy personnel contracted the flu.  The pandemic and the war were inextricably intertwined.  In one case, at Camp Grant, IL, the camp commander, Colonel Hagadorn, committed suicide from the stress of dealing with the virus.  Camp Grant ultimately experienced 1060 deaths out of a population of 40,000.  It directly affected readiness and compromised combat operations.  During the Meuse-Argonne Offensive in 1918, the flu clogged supply lines with sick troops and significantly cut the number of troops available for the offensive.  According to one official publication, in 1918, 227,000 American soldiers were hospitalized for wounds sustained in combat, but 340,000 were hospitalized for influenza. (“The U.S. Military and the Influenza Pandemic of 1918-1919,” Carol R. Byerly, PHD, Public Health Report 2010, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2862337/)  In the U.S., only the cancellation of the October 1918 draft call up slowed down the virus in all military training camps.

This author argues that the pandemic and the revolution in warfare taking place are linked and it would be folly not to factor in both when conducting military affairs for the foreseeable future.  The current pandemic will have long-term negative effects on military budgets and readiness.  Those effects, coupled with the rise of near-peer threats in Russia and China who are challenging the West across every domain by confronting the U.S. asymmetrically, blunting its buying power, and reaching technological parity.  This revolution requires a new way of thinking as Robert Kaplan and David Kilcullen advocate and an understanding of it in the context of an uncertain pandemic environment for the foreseeable future.  Kilcullen notes that “by the time we realize we are at war, we have already lost.” (p. 175, “The Dragons and the Snakes, How the Rest Learned to Fight the West,” David Kilcullen, 2020, Oxford University Press) Our adversaries use a termite approach.  Much of what they do is unseen until is too late.    The pandemic serves as a kicker charge to the changes taking place throughout the world in military affairs.  This paper will break down the effects of the virus on the military, focusing mainly on the U.S. armed forces and how those long-term repercussions are influencing the revolution in military affairs that includes multi-domain warfare, war in the gray zone, asymmetric threats, the third offset strategy.

The military’s response to the pandemic has been varied and there are examples of proactive, commendable responses as well as outright debacles.  U.S. Army General Abrams, Commander U.S. Forces-Korea, has demonstrated the effectiveness of a quick response.  His forces were in the epicenter of the outbreak in Korea and have only had two service members test positive out of a population of more than 28,500 (22 tested positive out the entire affiliated community out a population of 58,000 to include family members).  Abrams quickly instituted a shelter-in-place and social distancing order well before the virus had infected the U.S. community in Korea.  In addition, he continues to institute a strict shelter-in-place order that heavily fines those who violate it.  (“First U.S. Service Member to Contract Coronavirus Has Recovered in South Korea, Military Says,” Stars & Stripes, 16 April 20, www.military.com/daily-news/2020/04/16/first-us-service-contract-coronavirus-has-recovered-south-korea-military-says.html) The U.S. Stuttgart military community on the other hand has had 103 positive cases as of 8 April 2020. (“Coronavirus cases at Army’s Stuttgart garrison top 100, but rate appears to be slowing,” Stars & Stripes, 8 April 2020, https://www.stripes.com/news/europe/coronavirus-cases-at-army-s-stuttgart)  This author was unable to find specific differences between the two communities’ responses, but it is not a stretch to attribute the minimal number of cases in Korea to the U.S. Forces-Korea’s immediate and swift response.  Conversely, the Navy’s handling of the virus outbreak on the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt has been nothing but a debacle and a case study of how quickly a virus can spread in the tight confines of a naval vessel without an immediate response.  The aircraft carrier and its crew was and is non-mission capable.

The management of personnel will have to change as well.  Many units will have to maintain a “clean team” that is either immune to the virus or quarantined for up to two weeks prior to their availability to ensure they are virus free.  The U.S. Navy already does something similar to this manning with 1/3 rule of 1/3 deployed/available, 1/3 just returned from deployment, and 1/3 preparing to deploy.   Units will have to include virus outbreaks in all of their contingency plans and will have to factor in when they are considered non-mission capable due to an outbreak.  American units during the Spanish flu outbreak along the World War I Western Front had to factor in casualties and unit strength due to the virus.  On the plus side, adversaries will face similar challenges.  Learning how to develop a long-term response to the new operating environment will be critical.


Let’s be honest, the chances of actually curtailing costly U.S. Department of Defense budget expenditures on legacy weapons’ systems and platforms is next to impossible with the political implications of shutting down the construction of an aircraft carrier or a fighter aircraft.  The first cuts almost always occur with personnel which results in a loss of certain perishable skills.  It is inevitable that the U.S. government’s expenditures on the coronavirus will cause a contraction of the Department of Defense’s budget.  Service chiefs have to work within those constraints.  The Marine Corps Commandant has got it right with many aspects of his latest operating concept (“Commandant’s Planning Guidance, 38th Commandant of the USMC,” General David H. Berger, 2019, https://www.hqmc.marines.mil/Portals/142/Docs//%252038th%2520Commandant%2527s%Planning%2520Guidance_2019.pdf). He made some very hard and unpopular decisions such as cutting personnel, getting rid of tanks, and removing a large portion of artillery. The other services will also have to make some difficult decisions, but planning major changes to structure and strategy are better done ahead of time and not in the midst of a conflict.

The U.S. military with the expected cuts, a rising Chinese hegemony, and constant asymmetric threats will have to make a hard decision about what it can reasonably do.  It cannot be everywhere and fight every major threat simultaneously.  Simultaneously fighting a conflict with China in the Pacific and Russia in eastern Europe (and potentially the Middle East), ISIS in Syria, and terrorist groups across the continent of Africa while retooling the military in the midst of a revolution and rolling pandemic is not realistic. This paper argues the National Security Strategy should focus on the ability to confront one near peer threat at a time using many of the legacy, big ticket systems currently in the inventory from tanks to aircraft carriers. In any other near peer conflict, the U.S. will have to rely on proxy forces that they train and equip.  There is precedence with this model in traditional conflicts.  U.S. forces during Desert Storm partnered with the conventional forces of other nations to fight Iraq and remove them from Kuwait.  Prioritizing Europe and retooling NATO’s model into training and equipping forces similar to how the U.S. military uses the active component/reserve component (AC/RC) model is a potential course of action.  The U.S. should place a cadre of U.S. officers and NCOs, along with major weapon systems that were part of the U.S. inventory, with key partner nation units across Europe who are under the NATO umbrella and/or bilateral agreements.  Using this model for both ground and air forces can help take the “sting” out of the inevitable Western military budget reductions, personnel cuts, and retooling of equipment to better combat current multi-domain threats.

It also will take a whole of society approach to combatting the emerging threats.  Public/private partnerships that are forming to combat the pandemic should be used as a model.  Some of the initiatives with U.S. Army’s Futures Command based in Austin, TX are taking the right approach. A talent pool approach possibly using the state defense force (SDF)/state guard concept could be a template.  These militias are authorized under U.S. Code Title 32 and 23 states have SDF which are directly under the control of the governor and the federal government cannot federalize them.  They help states during catastrophes and national disasters such as the current pandemic and can augment the National Guard and first responders with manpower. (“The 21st-Century Militia:  State Defense Forces and Homeland Security,” James Carafano and Jessica Zuckerman, 8 October 2010, https://www.heritage.org/homeland-security/report/the-21st-century-militia-state-defense-forces-and-homeland-security). What about a similar organization at the federal level of volunteers comprised of former military, government, and private sector workers with needed skills, medical workers, etc. to draw from in times of need?  The U.S. has seen a surge in volunteers during the pandemic and this approach would be a way to not require a costly standing force.  The U.S. could use this organization for crises short of war both Stateside and abroad.  Congress has started to recognize the need to change how critical skills are managed.  A report to the U.S. Congress in March 2020 called for a “Critical Skills Individual Ready Reserve” that addressed the skills mismatch within the active and reserve forces with niche capabilities such as cyber, civil affairs, or medical either misused or unused.  The CARES Act actually created a “Ready Reserve Corps” to support the U.S. Public Health Service (www.military.com/daily-news/2020/04/08/army-calls-medics-return-service-congress-considers-new-skills-reserve). This author advocates for a public/private partnership National Service Reserve Corps that taps into critical skills from former service members, experts from across the entire federal government, and private industry.

Our overall strategy and some aspects of military culture will have to change. As mentioned, the U.S. and its allies will have to have a frank discussion with their people about what they are militarily capable of given the new security challenges coupled with budget realities.  Americans, since 1990, are used to going anywhere in the world to confront security challenges and as long as they commit enough resources, they will win.  In the future, that will no longer be the case.  The discussion will also have to include educating the public that future conflicts will involve a whole of society approach. Since the new type of conflict and adversaries do not know boundaries and are not constricted or differentiate between combatants and civilians.  Nothing is taboo or off limits and everything can be weaponized as such as information, news, and the openness and freedom of movement in Western societies.  Adversaries will also take advantage of the pandemic (as seen by increased Chinese naval activity in the Pacific). (“U.S. Warships Enter Disputed Waters of South China Sea as Tensions With China Escalate,” NY Times, Hannah Beech, 21 April 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/21/world/asia/coronavirus-south-china-sea-warships.html)  In addition, military culture will have to adapt to the new realities of rolling pandemic hotspots coupled with limited resources. The military practice of clustering people in training as well as during deployments will have to change.  Quarantining the force to protect it prior to deployments will have to be factored into all planning.  Plus risks assessments will have to include a decision point of when a battalion, ship, or squadron are considered unable to perform its mission due to illness.

These new types of conflicts will seem like “forever wars.” There will not be a clear beginning nor will there always be a conclusive end.  U.S. adversaries will attempt to influence public opinion and cause disruptions in nonmilitary areas.  That is why it will take a “whole of society” approach involving public/private partnerships to “fight” in areas where the civilian sector is leaner and faster.  This new conflict’s operating environment will involve the ebb and flow of the coronavirus pandemic which will drain resources and the enemy will exploit.  That also will require all facets of the nation-state to fight; from local volunteers at drive-thru testing centers to Health & Human Services uniformed personnel deploying to emerging hot spots to distilleries changing production to make hand sanitizer.  Even though it appears that China is on the rise; Russia’s transgressions will only continue; and asymmetric threats in all domains will only increase, the U.S. and its allies can meet these challenges. It does require innovative and emerging threat driven planning as well as unpopular budgetary decisions plus a frank dialogue with their citizens.  Without that, a U.S. and Western victory in future conflicts will be far from certain.


About the Author:

Spent over 26 years in the Army as both enlisted and as an officer to include 19 years in Special Forces.  He continued his service post military working for the government as a civilian and in that capacity served in various hot spots around the world.  Some of his deployments include Afghanistan, the Balkans, Iraq, Korea, and Ukraine. He has written extensively on international security matters.

Francis Marion is an SOFX BLACK network member and can be reached for comment at [email protected]

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