We Need to Link Local Leaders Directly to One Another

A strategy that helped Americans defeat al-Qaeda could be the key to stopping the coronavirus.

US House representatives

As the United States fights the spread of the coronavirus, health-care workers are recycling personal protective equipment, governors are engaging in bidding wars for ventilators, and large sections of our health-care infrastructure are being overwhelmed. Despite the herculean efforts of personnel across the federal government, it’s clear that a top-down approach to fighting COVID-19 is insufficient, and will continue to create silos between our frontline leaders. This war is being fought by governors, mayors, and hospitals, and they need a network that links them directly to one another, and moves as fast as the virus they are working to defeat. Otherwise, even if they win their local battles, the nation could still lose its war on COVID-19.

I’ve seen this kind of challenge before. In 2008, 10 years into my career as a Navy SEAL, I visited a small, inconspicuous green tent on the outskirts of Baghdad. After years on the front line of the fight against al-Qaeda, I’d joined General Stanley McChrystal’s staff for a one-year tour as an aide-de-camp. Our visit that day was to something I’d heard about, but only vaguely understood—a “fusion cell.” Although Baghdad was still racked daily by horrendous violence, we knew we’d gained the upper hand on the al-Qaeda network, but it wasn’t until I stepped into this small tent that I understood why.

While McChrystal spent time with the various members of the fusion cell, I sat quietly in the back and watched. A small number of personnel from different agencies and military units were reading intelligence reports, shouting across the room, running between desks, and hopping on and off calls to various strike forces on the front line. I realized: This is how we’re moving faster than the al-Qaeda network.

I was late to the game, of course. The people in that fusion cell, and McChrystal’s senior leadership team, had appreciated the importance of this approach for years. They knew that the most easily exploited location on a traditional battlefield is where two lines meet. This can be a physical gap between units on the ground, or a gap in lines of authority between different agencies. When these gaps in communication are encountered, bureaucracy steps in to ensure deliberate, albeit slow, coordination. In Special Operations, we referred to these as “blinks”; moments when our eyes were closed, and the enemy network was safe to expand.

Our fusion-cell network was the answer. Under McChrystal’s leadership, we placed small teams of intelligence analysts from Special Operations, conventional military units, civilian intelligence, and law-enforcement agencies at key locations around the world, as close to key nodes in the al-Qaeda network as possible. They weren’t frontline operators, but they were only one step away from, and in direct communication with, those teams. Wherever al-Qaeda was around the world, McChrystal fought to place a fusion cell there as well.

These interagency teams were constantly scanning raw data from ongoing missions in the field, which they fused across their agencies. Each member of a fusion cell had the authority and responsibility to quickly connect with other fusion cells, in real time, without letting their home bureaucracy slow things down. The larger this global, interconnected fusion-cell network became, the more exponential its returns. While the visible fight was mostly centered on Iraq and Afghanistan, our network would grow to more than 70 discreet locations around the globe. If operators and helicopters were the muscle and skeleton of the fight against al-Qaeda, the fusion-cell network was its nervous system.

The fusion-cell network accomplished three major goals that no bureaucracy could keep pace with. First, it captured and shared raw intelligence from one location that could drive immediate action at another. Second, it gave a nonsiloed view of the fight so that crucial decisions about where to allocate resources—where to send operators, helicopters, surveillance drones—were made with one common operating picture. And third, it provided a real-time network through which best practices on one side of the fight could be shared with other units, immediately saving lives on the battlefield. To illustrate: In a single night, the information gleaned from a raid in downtown Baghdad could be sent directly to a team 200 miles away in Anbar, which would step off for a mission with additional resources that had been coordinated by frontline leaders, and crucial intelligence that had yet to reach higher headquarters.

The close-quarters fight against the COVID-19 pandemic will be waged—and the losses borne—by our doctors, nurses, and first responders. But those who have the privilege of leading these men and women—our mayors, governors, and medical experts—must be provided with a similar network methodology to tap into; we must ensure they’re not being forced to fight 50 state-level battles against COVID-19, but one unified war as a nation. A fusion-cell-network approach would ensure that intelligence sharing isn’t limited by state borders, bureaucratic rules, or the down-and-in structure of a hospital system, city, or state. We must ensure that they can establish real-time connectivity with one another, and not depend solely on traditional bureaucratic channels.

In short, mayors, governors, and the federal agencies assisting them should stand up fusion cells across the country. This is a light and fast solution. With two or three people in key locations, armed simply with smartphones and laptops, a network could quickly be put into place across our country. An existing entity, such as the U.S. Conference of Mayors, could quickly create a network of local leaders who are fighting this threat in a coordinated fashion.

The results of fusion cells would be quickly apparent. Raw, accurate emergency-room numbers from New York City wouldn’t need to go through layers of national bureaucracy and spreadsheet input before reaching other cities. A tactical improvement made in a Los Angeles emergency room would be shared immediately with doctors and nurses in Detroit and San Francisco. The network would provide mayors and governors with a more reliable single operational picture of this fight, so they can make informed decisions about resource allocation. Such a network wouldn’t be perfect—it never is—and would require trusting your team, but it could be crucial as the nation faces shortages and overload. We should not have governors or hospital systems in bidding wars for ventilators and personal protective equipment; instead, they need a network that allows them to make effective cross-border, cross-agency, and cross-party decisions.

After my time on McChrystal’s staff in Iraq, I was able to spend a year at graduate school, and my thesis team’s research focused on interagency fusion cells. This was relatively early in the special-operations community’s recognition of their importance, and our goal was to flesh out the key variables that were making some of them so successful. We found, surprisingly, that one key factor far outweighed more obvious and visible ones, such as technological infrastructure, geographic location, the number or seniority of personnel, or physical constructions. Success hinged, quite simply, on the human factor.

If the members of a fusion cell were experienced players who enjoyed high levels of trust in their home community, regardless of their seniority or positional authority, they were empowered to quickly push insights across bureaucratic firewalls and create action on the front lines. Without personnel like that, a fusion cell became just another repository for information from which those closest to the fight needed to pull insights. A network node intended to add speed and connectivity can quickly turn into another bureaucratic layer. Keeping the nodes fast, light, and staffed by seasoned people proved key to success.

This pandemic presents an incredible challenge for our nation, but we’ve learned previously how to defeat a problem like this. Agency and state bureaucracy will help us make sound and structured decisions, but it’s impossible to move key insights and raw intelligence through traditional means alone. The doctors, nurses, and first responders who are in this battle each day deserve every solution we can possibly offer. Minutes count. They need a network.