Adjusting to coronavirus impacts on national security

Best listening experience is on Chrome, Firefox or Safari. Subscribe to Federal Drive’s daily audio interviews on Apple Podcasts or PodcastOne.

The little germ that’s wrecked havoc on public health and the economy has also stuck a spear into national security. The episode of the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Theodore Roosevelt showed that. With a wider assessment is former Navy officer and Pentagon planner, now Hudson Institute senior fellow, Bryan Clark joined Federal Drive with Tom Temin.

Interview transcript:

Advertisement

Tom Temin: Bryan, good to have you back.

Bryan Clark: Great to be on. Tom. Thank you very much.

Tom Temin: Let’s talk about the greater national security picture and I guess there’s a lot of little effects here and there. But what’s your assessment of the overall effect that this pandemic is having on US national security?

Bryan Clark: So I think what we find is that the military’s adapted like it normally does. We’ve gone from a time when we had to keep forces at sea, the Navy’s had to keep aircraft carriers and ships at sea while they waited to come into port hoping they could ensure that they had a clean port to come into. We had to the issue with Theodore Roosevelt where they had to pull into Guam so they could offload the crew and have them recuperate ashore while they clean the ship and also ensure that they were on quarantine. And then we have also had problems with some of the deploying units having to wait in quarantine for 14 days before they could leave. So the military’s adapted though, and they’ve created processes so that they’re able to get forces on deployment and have them return while minimizing their their chances of getting COVID. Now what it does mean those when they’re on deployment, they’re not able to engage with local populations or host nations, which really does reduce their ability to do security cooperation.

Tom Temin: That incident on the Roosevelt, our enemies would have taken notice that a major asset. one of 11 carriers and one of probably what six or seven that are actually out there at any given time is disabled or unable to be out there. That would really get the eyebrows raised I think of enemies and allies around the world, wouldn’t it?

Bryan Clark: Absolutely. So what COVID shows us that for a military unit, once you get the infection inside a military unit, that military unit is largely going to be unavailable for some period of time, especially a ship because you’ve got to take it to a place where you can get the crew into quarantine and manage the virus, as opposed to like a flu or some other illness where you can just work through the fact that’s a portion of the crew will be down for a period of time. So it causes the force to degrade in a much less graceful way than a normal sickness would.

Tom Temin: And are there different sectoral challenges, say between the Navy on the ocean in an enclosed environment and talk about under the sea, versus the Air Force where you’re mostly on the ground on earth or the Army?

Bryan Clark: Yeah, so for the Navy, once a unit or once a ship gets the infection on board, it’s it has to be kind of taken offline. And so you’ll lose that entire ship. It doesn’t degrade gracefully. But when you do get a ship to sea and you’re able to ensure it’s virus free, then it’s then it’s able to remain isolated and it can do its job unlike a ground unit like an Army unit or an Air Force unit that’s going to be on the ground overseas constantly at risk of being infected by the local population or by other people coming into the unit. So I think that the challenge there for folks that are deploying in the ground units is going to be to put their people into quarantine for 14 days before they leave, and then largely isolate them from the local population while they’re on deployment, which really cuts down on what they’ve been able to achieve while they’re on the operation.

Tom Temin: Yeah, so that is to say they can be deployed, but maybe a little less flexible than they would like to be under normal times.

Bryan Clark: Right, right. And certainly not able to do a lot of the training and host nation support the military prides itself on doing. So you’re largely left to do just the mission that you do on behalf of US military strategy.

Tom Temin: And when it comes to exercises with other nations militaries, then I would think that the Navy has the least risk because everyone’s on their own ship — whereas in ground exercises or say air exercises, where planes might be parked next to each other, you know more about this than I do, then the troops might actually from different nations come in closer to contact.

Bryan Clark: Absolutely. So training exercises where you’re going to be largely staying on your own unit, like a naval exercise, can continue and some of those are starting to reemerge and we’re starting to do some more of those again. But events like red flag, where the Air Force will bring in a lot of Air Force units from other countries to Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada to do a large scale exercise. Those are really being curtailed because of the inability to really ensure that all the people coming into the country are COVID free, or forcing them to quarantine for 14 days, which isn’t practical for a lot of these nation’s militaries.

Tom Temin: I was going to say there must be sort of a cultural cost there too, because maybe at the end of the day, the officers from around the nation might be in the officer’s club, but not now.

Bryan Clark: Right, not now. That whole opportunity for engagement and learning more about other countries, militaries and cultures, that’s lost right now.

Tom Temin: And just out of curiosity, I wanted to ask you as a former submarine officer, they must have already very long protocols to prevent infection in such a closed environment with everyone so close together even though the numbers are smaller than a carrier, but it seems like the infection danger would be an acute part of daily planning.

Bryan Clark: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, once an infection gets on board a submarine, and I’ve experienced like the flu and colds coming through submarines, and normally everybody on the submarine gets sick with whatever somebody brought on board for the first week or two after you get underway — but normally, that’s a relatively mild illness so everybody can work through it. But with this, the Navy is having to take much greater precautions to ensure that everybody leaves COVID free, so you got to have everybody in quarantine for two weeks essentially before they deploy and do temperature checks and have testing done before you leave to ensure that the crew is free of the of the virus and then you isolate them on the submarine and they remain on the submarine essentially for the duration of deployments. So no port calls, no opportunities to get off the ship and walk around or anything.

Tom Temin: But I guess you can’t get seasick on a submarine, can you?

Bryan Clark: You can if it’s surface, because they don’t ride very well on the surface because they’re round as opposed to a ship that’s got maybe a little bit better control over its buoyancy versus center of gravity. Yeah, so they ride a lot rougher on the surface.

Tom Temin: Sort of like a pair of canoes bolted together, I guess.

Bryan Clark: Exactly.

Tom Temin: Alright, so getting to the bigger picture. As you mentioned in the beginning, the military did adapt. Any lessons you feel from military treatment of this whole situation that could be learned in the wider world, the wider community?

Bryan Clark: Well, so the one thing that the military learned early on, and this was revealed by the whole debacle with the Roosevelt, was early communication from senior leaders down to junior leaders as to what the right protocols should be right now. Don’t force your junior leaders to make it up on their own because they don’t have the best information regarding either the treatment options for the virus or the ways to isolate people from the virus or how to deal with the need to separate your crew and these disinfect the ship or disinfect the unit. So guidance from senior leaders ended up being extremely important and it wasn’t provided early in this case so that’s why we saw a lot of problems out in the military with individual commanders having to make it up on their own. So looking at the civilian case, it’s absolutely essential that senior leaders in governments, whether it’s the state government, or national government, are providing your clear guidance down to the folks on the ground who are supposed to be managing because they don’t have the best information necessarily, but they’re the people that are most directly involved with the people that are the victims of the of the virus and the people that need to take action to reduce its spread. So the military found the chain of command being a really essential component of this, and that’s probably something that could be conveyed over to the civilian side.

Tom Temin: Sure. So bottom line, then would you say the military has adapted and therefore national security from a military readiness standpoint, at least the ability to get up and go, is as it was before the coronavirus?

Bryan Clark: More or less, I mean, you’ve seen the or the Navy or the military in general has ramped up its op tempo kind of to show that it’s able to persevere in the wake of the virus. It’s a big inconvenience for military members because this means now your deployment is essentially extended for a couple of weeks on either end, so returning units also have to now remain at sea or remain an operation until their relief can show up, which means their deployment becomes longer. So for military members, it’s an inconvenience, and for families, it’s an inconvenience. But certainly they’ve been able to adapt to it.

Tom Temin: By the way, how do you clean out a ship or a submarine with all those nooks and crannies?

Bryan Clark: It’s very difficult. So there’s a combination of just you know, elbow grease. And then UV light cleaning is becoming very popular or prevalent. And then aerosols, so there’s some ways to clean up, but you’re right, you’re probably not gonna get to every nook and cranny and so part of what you’re doing also is just trying to make sure the surface is not touched for some period of time and the virus dies.

Tom Temin: Not your average super eight motel room.

Bryan Clark: Right, right. Exactly.

Tom Temin: Bryan Clark is senior fellow at the Hudson Institute. Thanks so much.

Bryan Clark: Oh you’re welcome. Thank you Tom.