We Can’t Rely on Just the Military

It might seem like the Pentagon can act as some sort of savior in confronting the coronavirus, but that’s unlikely.

Marine recruits sit in a group listening to a speaker off camera.
Scott Olson / Getty

In September 2014, as the deadly Ebola virus overwhelmed West Africa, the Obama administration felt compelled to intervene. The Pentagon spent $360 million to send 3,000 troops to the region and tasked them with building 17 100-bed treatment centers. Ultimately, only 11 centers were constructed, and only 28 Ebola patients were treated at them. Nine of those centers never even saw patients. By contrast, the international medical NGO Doctors Without Borders treated more than 5,000 Ebola patients, or a third of total confirmed cases, at a cost of roughly $100 million, or less than a third of what the Pentagon spent.

The difference was that the Obama administration’s efforts didn’t kick in until after the outbreak had already peaked. The first center opened in mid-November, by which point new cases were steadily declining. Doctors Without Borders, meanwhile, first responded to the crisis in March 2014.

The armed forces have certainly had their share of public-health successes, from Walter Reed’s discoveries about yellow fever to the military’s work on an Ebola vaccine. But the sluggish and costly response to the Ebola outbreak, according to Charles Kenny of the Center for Global Development, is a reality check as the Pentagon struggles to respond to the coronavirus outbreak. As an institution designed to defeat “opponents on the battlefield,” he told me, the Defense Department is “a woefully insufficient, inefficient, and expensive tool” to combat a pandemic. What are needed most right now are scientists and medical workers collaborating across countries.

“COVID-19 is demonstrating the challenges of using a war-fighting machine for pandemic response once again,” added Kenny, the author of a new book on why the Pentagon is ill-equipped to confront 21st-century challenges such as global disease outbreaks and climate change.

Judging by how the military has been deployed so far, it would seem to be taking a leading role in the nation's response to the coronavirus. The Navy has dispatched hospital ships to New York and Los Angeles. The National Guard has scrambled to set up field hospitals across the country. The Defense Department has released millions of N95 masks and thousands of ventilators from its strategic reserves. Lawmakers and op-ed writers are calling for military officials to assume command of the emergency response.

Yet all this has created a misleading impression: that the U.S. military—the finest fighting force in the world, blessed with a bigger budget than the combined defense budget of the next 12 countries in terms of military expenditures—can act as some sort of savior. That’s unlikely, because responding to a pandemic is not what the military was built to do. What this crisis has revealed isn’t that the American armed forces need to get better at combatting pandemics. It’s that the American response to the virus has been crippled by the fact that its spending priorities are all out of whack.

Donald Trump says he’s at “war” with the virus, but “war is, in part, what got us to this health crisis—with weakened public health care and a manufacturing system better suited to building bombers than respirators,” the scholars Catherine Lutz and Neta Crawford, who direct a project tracking the trillions of dollars the United States has spent on counterterrorism campaigns, wrote recently. “The years of investing in military solutions means that this is where the resources, physical and cultural, are. The problem is that most of them are irrelevant to what we need to treat the sick and organize public response.” COVID-19 has already killed more than four times the number of Americans who died on 9/11.

The predicament the U.S. finds itself in is akin to that of someone who buys plenty of pricey body armor and weaponry and boldly sets out for battle, only to fall into a dark hole. Suddenly, the armor and weapons are of no use. What he really needs is a sturdy ladder and a flashlight.

As Ashik Siddique, a military-spending researcher, pointed out to me, in 2019 the U.S. government allocated about $750 billion for national defense and about $8 billion for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “That’s almost 100 times as much preparing for war as preparing for pandemics and disease outbreaks,” said Siddique, who works with the National Priorities Project at the Institute for Policy Studies, a progressive think tank.

Those lopsided investments are now painfully evident. Siddique noted that Trump took until the end of March to begin (gingerly) using the Korean War–era Defense Production Act to force companies to produce and distribute essential medical supplies for addressing COVID-19.

The Defense Department “is now prioritizing the manufacture of ventilators and personal protective equipment,” but these could still take weeks to reach “medical professionals, because of delays in coordination between the Pentagon and federal agencies … about which equipment should be manufactured,” Siddique said. At that point, the pandemic may have already peaked in many places.

DOD “hands out over $364 billion a year in private contracts, about half its entire budget, and claims a workforce of 140,000 acquisition professionals that could have been put to work much sooner on steering many more of these contracts with defense firms to produce necessary medical supplies,” he continued. “If the Defense Production Act had been invoked back in February, large-scale industrial production of ventilators and masks would have begun with weeks to spare.”

Similarly, the Navy’s hospital ships in New York and Los Angeles, which each have hundreds of hospital beds and health-care workers on board, initially treated only a handful of non-coronavirus patients, in a modest effort to relieve civilian medical facilities that are buckling under the weight of COVID-19 cases. That’s because, as a recent report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies noted, the “vessels are designed for treating trauma cases associated with combat” and “are poorly designed for containing infectious diseases.” Nevertheless, the USNS Comfort in New York has now agreed to take on COVID-19 patients out of sheer necessity.

The military’s initial policy of not accepting COVID-19 cases “may make sense if the Navy’s goal is to ensure it has capacity to respond to military threats,” Kenny said. But that “doesn’t make too much sense if your goal is to help out in a city undergoing a pandemic.”

Military officials and many politicians, moreover, are insisting on casting the campaign against the coronavirus as a war, even though it’s a different beast entirely. Earlier this week, in defending his decision to dismiss the captain of the USS Theodore Roosevelt for warning in a leaked letter of the spread of the virus on the aircraft carrier, then–Acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly declared to the crew: “If this ship was in combat and there were hypersonic missiles coming at it, you’d be pretty fucking scared too. But you do your jobs.” (While we’re on the topic, the Trump administration’s 2021 budget proposal, released as the coronavirus spread around the world, called for investing hundreds of millions of dollars in hypersonic missiles while slashing CDC funding by a similar amount.)

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.