WASHINGTON – Even with China taking extreme measures to contain the spread of the coronavirus — effectively quarantining 50 million people in the center of the country — more than 200 Chinese have died and it is beginning to pop up around the globe, including at least six cases in the United States.
This is one of the few times when there are advantages to being an authoritarian society where people are used to immediately obeying commands from higher authority; imagine the reaction if the U.S. government shut all transportation in and out of Chicago, a step the Chinese government has taken in a similarly sized metropolis, Wuhan.
Still, the unfortunate timing of the Lunar New Year means that hundreds of millions are on the move, and the ubiquity of air travel means the virus will be difficult to contain. Are we facing another Spanish Influenza, which a century ago infected more than a third of the world’s population with a 20 percent mortality rate? Probably not. But Mother Nature has a nasty habit of throwing deadly pandemics at us every couple of centuries, despite all medical progress — and we are increasingly due. And if this or a future virus truly goes global, the world’s militaries are going to have to take a lead role in containing it.
As commander of U.S. Southern Command I oversaw the responses to several cholera outbreaks in Haiti — easier to contain than the coronavirus, but more than half a million Haitians were infected and nearly 10,000 died in the aftermath of a 2010 earthquake. The U.S. military and allied partners were crucial to halting the spread of the disease. American troops — working with counterparts from Brazil and Chile — were able to bring water purification, electrical generation and basic civil order. No civilian agency could have done so given the scale of the emergency.
Likewise, the U.S. Defense Department had an impressive response to Ebola in West Africa several years ago. The deployment of mobile surgical hospitals and airlifts of vital supplies (including isolation suits, which will be crucial if the coronavirus becomes a global crisis) was essential. If you want a fictional vision of what a military engagement in a pandemic could look like, check out “World War Z” by Max Brooks, a novel about a pandemic that sweeps the planet and forces the hardest of choices on societies concerning quarantines, triage and concentration camps. (Yes, that virus turns people into zombies, but suspend your disbelief for a little while.) While there will be some hesitancy from civilian medical professionals to deal with the military, they will simply have to in defeating biological challenges at the global level.
Armies have enormous capabilities in dealing with pandemics. They train to operate in a world of bioweapons, and have the heavy equipment and personal protective gear necessary in an infected environment. They have a huge medical establishment and a deep-bench research capability that can be applied to tactical treatments and a search for vaccines and palliative drugs. Militaries also have logistical abilities to move manpower, equipment and even full hospitals across the globe within days or even hours. Finally, most militaries — particularly that of the U.S. — have an ethos of service, meaning the personnel will be willing to deliver in the face of personal danger. That is a rich mix of abilities.
The bad news is that disease control is not typically an area of focus for the Pentagon and other large militaries around the world. Understandably, the U.S. Defense Department is currently focused on tactical challenges such as terrorism, dangerous actors like Iran and North Korea, and the longer-term strategic challenges from Russia and China. While there are basic contingency and operational plans to deal with pandemics, they are infrequently exercised and chronically unfunded.
For a domestic crisis, the responder would be the U.S. Northern Command, which is ahead of the other geographic commands in terms of preparedness but still needs better training. To be frank, during the decade I led the Southern and European commands, we did virtually nothing to prepare for a large medical epidemic. The Pentagon should look at the coronavirus as a wake-up call and undertake a high-level review of readiness to respond to this kind of danger.
Additionally, the U.S. military can organize the various public and private entities in the field. Certainly the Centers for Disease Control will take the lead, along with the U.S. Agency for International Development, which has played a vital role in combating HIV globally. But they will need help coordinating in the field with nongovernmental organizations such as the Red Cross, Doctors Without Borders and the Disaster Response Corps of the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab (where I serve as a senior fellow). Private-public cooperation will be crucial in responding to pandemics, and the military is a perfectly placed middleman.
Finally, viruses cannot be defeated by any one state, and every country on Earth has a vested interest in defeating a pandemic. Military-to-military planning, exercises and operations can be swiftly put in place and conducted because militaries — even those of opponents — understand each other’s operational tactics, techniques and procedures. We don’t have the equivalent of a North Atlantic Treaty Organization against pandemics, but if the coronavirus goes global in a serious way, we are going to need one. And it would be an operation in which the U.S., its treaty partners, Russia, China, India — and even someday, perhaps, North Korea and Iran — would want and need to work together.
Bloomberg Opinion columnist James Stavridis is a retired U.S. Navy admiral and former supreme allied commander of NATO.