There are two keys to preparing for a future biological disaster: a strategy that keeps the military and critical industries operating, and far better intelligence on “bad” actors, especially Russia and China.
Both need massive improvement.
While many experts are focused on the coronavirus lockdown and its eventual lifting, less attention is given to the degradation of the U.S. military and weakening of America’s strategic deterrence, especially in East Asia.
Concomitant with a loss of deterrence is a rise in the risk of general war.
Neither the Navy nor the Pentagon were prepared for a pandemic, and their decisions resulted in the withdrawal of the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt from the region.
In early March, the Navy persisted in “normal” port calls to areas with rising coronavirus infection rates—the Theodore Roosevelt went to Vietnam, and the crew was on the ground for five days. Ships were then “quarantined” at sea for 14 days.
The Navy had to know by then that the quarantine of cruise ship passengers and crew together at sea meant the virus spread widely among those on board. At the same time, while the Pentagon canceled all travel, military exercises, and deployments, it did not countermand the Navy decision to “quarantine” 5,000 people together.
China has taken advantage of the absence of the Theodore Roosevelt by stepping up operations in the South China Sea, and there’s a risk that Chinese military leaders may push for action against more significant targets.
The Pentagon and military services must find a better way to secure effective fighting forces under pandemic conditions. Part of the answer would seem to be in prepositioning testing kits, protective masks, and decontamination equipment in safe zones located on or near important U.S. military bases.
Civil StrategyA similar strategy is needed for critical industries. If specialized plants reduce output, or cease working altogether, the damage to our capabilities could be enormous. A civil strategy to keep businesses, including small businesses, operating could significantly reduce the need for lockdown or quarantine measures.
During the Gulf War and Iraq War, Israel set an important civil defense example by providing kits to all its citizens that included gas masks and antibiotics to be used in case of a biological attack. The distribution of kits ended in 2014, but Israel kit distribution stands as an excellent example of what the United States and other nations could do to protect against pandemics caused by viruses.
A properly designed kit for every citizen (Israel had baby kits and kits adjusting for long beards) would go a long way to protect lives and keep the country working, meaning that lockdowns and other measures could be confined to hot spot locations and only when absolutely needed.
What China Is DoingA critical need is vastly improved intelligence so that dangers can be avoided or mitigated. A great deal is known about China’s biological research operations because of extensive contacts and cooperation between Chinese and foreign scientists, and projects shared between Chinese, American, French, and other laboratories.
For a brief three years (2014–17) the United States recognized the risk in certain types of viral research and urged scientists to stop doing it, going so far as to halt funding from the National Institute of Health and other organizations. But in 2017 the ban was dropped.
Our scientific establishment returned to business as usual with no real strategic assessment of the risks involved, although there were warnings. The FBI was concerned about biological agents, including SARs viruses, being moved in and out of the United States, and U.S. Customs seized some of this material.
Likewise, the CIA evidenced serious concern about certain biological warfare dangers, particularly from terrorists. But no one in our intelligence system appears to have systematically dug into what China was doing.
There are hundreds, if not thousands, of American scientists working with Chinese experts. They know a great deal about what China is doing, and how well. Some of the work is done at American labs and universities, some with private companies, and there is some exchange with China (although presumably carefully controlled on the Chinese end).
This is an intelligence gold mine. Our agencies need to be building networks among U.S. scientists to get a grip on the big picture. In this way, not only can we anticipate developing threats but also start working on countermeasures.
Our intelligence agencies should also be systematically exploiting information in the public domain. Chinese scientists have published a great deal of their research in scientific journals, often boasting about their achievements.
Recently, the Chinese government has started censoring some of this output, but there still is a great deal out there that has not been thoroughly exploited. An open source exploitation effort is sorely needed.
We were caught short and the United States is paying the price. It shouldn’t happen again.