Armed Forces and Pandemics

Author Name: Shaza Arif      15 May 2020     Global view

COVID-19 has presented the world with a dire situation in which every individual is to some degree vulnerable to a threat that is unprecedented. The pandemic has disrupted all sort of international activities; be they social, economic, or political. In the meantime, the discovery of a suitable vaccine is still pending, even as medical researchers work around the clock.

Governments across the world have called upon their militaries to play a supporting role in the fight against the pandemic. The armed forces have multiple challenges to deal with: maintaining law and order; facilitating national health systems; running logistical operations; diverting production capabilities; maintaining credible operational preparedness; resetting timelines and mitigating the impacts of COVID-19.

Above all, the protection of military personnel from the virus is imperative, and the main priority of every military commander would be to ensure that military personnel are not affected by the contagion.

On 23rd April, Major General Michael Turello, commander of the US’ combined Horn of Africa Joint Task Force, declared a public health emergency for American forces under his command spread across the Djibouti base.

Likewise, the Pentagon is also concerned about the U.S military presence in places such as Italy, Spain, Germany, South Korea, and Japan. Similarly, China has also demonstrated its determination to protect its personnel at overseas military bases and has issued guidelines in that regard.

Military cantonments have to practice strict preventive measures, noting that the spread of the virus in conflict-prone areas is another factor which militaries have to take into consideration while deploying officers.

Maintaining the credibility of combat preparedness is also a pressing challenge. The spread of the virus at any military installation could see it withdrawn from full operational use. The spread of COVID-19 on the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt not only sidelined one of the most important ships in the U.S Navy, but also led to the withdrawal of duty and isolation for the 800 crew members on board.

Likewise, similar patterns were observed after the breakout of the virus on the French aircraft carrier Charles De Gaulle where 668 cases were reported. In addition, the ground forces are engaged in assisting the government against the pandemic by organizing testing facilities, implementing lockdowns and helping with logistics.

Military commanders have to ensure that the troop strength is maintained against any conventional threat but at the same time must assist the state in its counter-measures against the pandemic.

Moreover, regular testing is compulsory for servicemen involved in the fight against the pandemic as they can get affected with the virus, without showing symptoms, thereby endangering the lives of the people who they intend to protect.

Thirdly, the pandemic has pushed ahead the timelines set for military objectives which will have longer-term consequences. The pandemic has delayed the withdrawal of 5000 U.S. troops from Afghanistan; previously committed in the peace deal with Taliban.

Moreover, armed forces have also terminated wargames, exercises, and training to prevent the spread of the virus. Arms production has also been impeded by the pandemic which will impact the fighting potential.

Furthermore, shipments of purchased weaponry have also been delayed which would reset the schedule of their integration into the forces. Consequently, there will be a delay in materializing the objectives which were set for the near future.

Militaries need to be prepared to mitigate the impacts of COVID-19 in a comprehensive manner. The medicines, hospitals, and health care facilities, operated by the armed forces, may be sufficient for normal time yet may fall short to deal with the pandemic.

The overwhelming of the existing health facilities poses a serious challenge for the armed forces. Consequently, the armed forces need to establish apt health facilities to deal with a scenario where virus breaks out in any unit or military cantonment.

The pandemic is also illustrative of the risk that militaries face from potential biological warfare attacks. While the scientific consensus thus far is that COVID-19 is a naturally-occurring viral strain, the practical implications for militaries are that future bio-engineered weapons attacks pose a grave threat.

Hence, policy makers will have to consider the dynamics of biological warfare in their future policy making.

The ongoing situation remains highly uncertain, and new cases are being reported each day. As the situation evolves, so must the policies that grapple with the situation.

The challenges faced by militaries are multi-faceted and leadership qualities of high command are being tested.

Continuous effort to strike the balance between domestic obligations and external security threats is the need of time. The longer the pandemic continues, the more difficult it might become to maintain this balance.


Shaza Arif is a Researcher at Centre for Aerospace and Security Studies (CASS). This article was first Published in Daily NHT newspaper. She can be reached at

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