Read: The case against waging ‘war’ on the coronavirus
Aircraft carriers, of course, are the hulking epitome of American military might; “Whenever there has been a crisis, the first question has been: ‘Where are the carriers?’” the Navy’s website proudly proclaims. The answer, during the current crisis, is that the Theodore Roosevelt is out of service in Guam, with a demoralized crew and more than 150 sailors (including, reportedly, the discharged captain) sick with COVID-19. The rules of war don’t apply here. Aircraft carriers can’t fend off disease; in fact, they’re uniquely vulnerable to it. As my colleague Kathy Gilsinan wrote, the military is struggling to protect its own people, let alone other Americans.
The Theodore Roosevelt cost $4.5 billion. And as Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut pointed out this week, whatever fancy aircraft carrier replaces it “will be more than our entire annual anti-pandemic budget.” (After all, it costs $400,000 just to fix clogged toilets on the country’s newest aircraft carriers.)
“It’s not that we lack the resources to protect America from pandemic disease. It’s just that we don’t align our spending to the actual threats that America faces today,” Murphy wrote on Twitter. “Russia and China are bigger threats than ever before. We shouldn’t stand down in the fight against major powers and non-state adversaries. But are conventional military actors really 100x more dangerous than disease? The answer, of course, is staring us in the face today.” Presuming that national security is about securing the nation, it follows that national-security resources should be allocated according to what will most protect the American people.
Just last week, on the same day that the United States exceeded 1,000 coronavirus deaths in a single day for the first time, the head of the U.S. military’s Indo-Pacific Command requested $20 billion in new funding over the next six years to counter China in the Pacific. The price tag includes advanced weaponry such as space-based radars and a “360 degree” missile-defense system “critical for defending the Homeland.” With that kind of cash, the United States could buy a whole lot of ventilators, which are in dangerously short supply at the moment.
That’s not to say that the U.S. must choose between space-based radars and ventilators, between guarding against the very real threat China poses to U.S. interests and girding for public-health catastrophes. But it is to say that the United States has a lot of money to play with, and can afford to allocate its resources in ways that more accurately reflect the threats facing Americans around the world. Imagine if the U.S. government had been as proactive about stockpiling medical equipment for a pandemic as it has been about, say, competing with China.
Kenny said he hopes that the Defense Department will draw on its logistical expertise to help distribute medical supplies, and that the military’s medical researchers will help develop a coronavirus vaccine and COVID-19 treatments. Still, he continued, “maybe it is time to make sure U.S. support to the World Health Organization is worth more each year than the costs of buying and operating a single F-35 fighter.”
Maybe. But the government isn’t quite there yet. Yesterday, Trump threatened to withhold U.S. funding from the WHO. The U.S. military, meanwhile, just placed an order for 78 new F-35s, at a cost of $4.7 billion.