For the first time since World War II, an adversary managed to knock a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier out of service. Only this time the enemy was a virus, not a nation-state. The fact that we ‘lost’ the ultimate symbol of American military power to an invisible opponent should send shock waves through the national security community, because in its race to prepare the country for renewed great power competition with Russia and China, it has largely ignored a potentially greater threat: pandemic disease.
On March 31, the Navy confirmed that it had begun evacuating most of the crew aboard the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt to facilities on Guam due to a COVID-19 outbreak on the ship. The Roosevelt, which had been on patrol in the Pacific since January, reported its first three cases of COVID-19 on March 24. On March 30, with 100 confirmed cases on board, the ship’s commander, Captain Brett Crozier, sent an urgent four-page letter to the Navy requesting emergency measures to halt the outbreak. He warned that normal shipboard operating conditions made social distancing impossible. Nor did the ship have appropriate quarantine and isolation facilities for sick and exposed sailors. Crozier ultimately decided that the only way to protect his sailors’ health was to temporarily sacrifice his ship’s considerable war-fighting capabilities by pulling into port and evacuating most of the crew until the outbreak could be eradicated.
Now there are reports that a second carrier operating in the Pacific, the USS Ronald Reagan, has at least two positive cases of COVID-19. Nimitz-class aircraft carriers like the Roosevelt and the Reagan form the core of carrier strike groups, and are integral to how the United States projects power around the world. If the Reagan is forced to evacuate its sailors as the Roosevelt did, this would deprive the United States of the most powerful symbols of its commitment to defending its allies and interests in the Pacific.
The fate of the Roosevelt should serve as a wake-up call about the threat that pandemic diseases pose to national security. At best, they wreak havoc on military readiness by causing service members to fall ill and diverting units to reinforce our nation’s easily overwhelmed public health infrastructure. Rogue actors can also be expected to take advantage of the chaos and confusion.
Yet these risks pale in comparison to the worst-case scenarios. History tells us that pandemic diseases can easily kill more Americans than war. If current projections prove accurate, we could lose more Americans to the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19 than we lost in Vietnam, the Korean War and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, combined. And there are far deadlier superbugs than the one attacking the globe right now. The 1918 flu pandemic killed at least 40 million people—roughly four times as many soldiers perished in the world war raging at the time.
Unfortunately, the government has not yet treated this threat with the same sort of urgency and focus that it has lavished on great power competition. In fact, National Security Advisor John Bolton sent a clear signal about the administration’s priorities when he downgraded the office in the National Security Council dedicated to pandemic threats. Far from an anomaly, the move was consistent with the Trump Administration’s overall approach to pandemic preparedness: short-sighted and underfunded.
If anything, pandemic security seems to be on the losing side of a zero sum competition for resources with more traditional threats. Just this year, the administration raided the Defense Threat Reduction Agency’s budget for working with other countries on biosecurity threats to pay for more research on hypersonic missiles. At the same time that the National Nuclear Security Administration saw its budget increased by 20 percent to pay for new nuclear weapons, the administration slashed the budget for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) by 15 percent. In fact, the entire 2019 federal budget for all health security-related programs was about $13.6 billion. Meanwhile, the Trump administration has requested almost $46 billion in funding for nuclear weapons programs in its 2021 budget proposal.
The time for action is now. History (and epidemiology) remind us that it is a question of when—not if—another pandemic will strike. Nor can we mitigate the risks and costs by simply adding pandemic preparation to the ever-expanding laundry list of missions we expect the military to handle. Pandemic readiness demands a genuine “whole of government” approach. The Defense Department undoubtedly possesses unique capabilities that are well-suited for pandemic response. However, it is more effective to invest directly in public health agencies whose primary mission is to prevent, detect, and respond to infectious disease threats. A more appropriate division of labor and resourcing will certainly force the Pentagon to tighten its belt, at least on the margins. Yet empowering non-defense Federal, state, local, and private entities will also free the Department of Defense to focus on the kinds of adversaries it is best designed to deter and defeat: the ones we can see.
Nobel laureate Joshua Lederberg once said that “the single biggest threat to [humanity’s] continued dominance on this planet is the virus.” Biomedical research, public health preparedness, and international cooperation are the keys to global health security. We must ensure that they become the pillars of how we prepare for the next global contagion.
Welcome to national security in an age of pandemics.