QuickHit: How ready is the military to face COVID-19 and its challenges?
In this QuickHit episode, we’re joined by Tate Nurkin to talk about the state of the military in COVID-19 pandemic. Tate is one of the world’s top defense and security experts, who has been in the security field for the past 20-25 years. He works for US defense and intelligence communities, allies, and partners in China and the Indo-Pacific, helping with defense technology to improve the future of military capabilities globally.
In our previous QuickHit episodes we covered the oil & gas industry:
- Oil companies will either shut-in or cut back, layoffs not done yet
- There’s no going back for O&G sector jobs
- 2 Things Oil & Gas Companies Need to Do Right Now to Win Post Pandemic
Tony: One of the key things that I’m curious about is the impact of COVID on militaries and their readiness. We’re not hearing a lot about that. Are you seeing anything there? Do you have any worries? Is that something that will last a few months or years into the future?
Tate: There are definitely some short-term implications for militaries and readiness is at the top of the list.
We saw a fair amount of media coverage of the situation on the USS Theodore Roosevelt, which actually was a pretty big deal. Over a thousand members of that 5,000-person crew were diagnosed with COVID 19. One passed away.
Those incidences are happening, not just with the Theodore Roosevelt. It’s happened on another US Navy ship and it’s happened on a French aircraft carrier. Just like cruise ships, these ships are places where you’re very contained and in close contact with other people who may be carrying the disease. It’s easy for the disease to spread.
We’ve also seen it with the Taiwanese Navy. Taiwan did a fantastic job containing the crisis, but they have friendship fleet missions that go to the South Pacific. The most recent one came back from Palau. A bunch of sailors who came off that mission were diagnosed after they had gone out into Taiwan and mingled around.
These are big issues. These ships, predominantly ship forces deployed throughout the world, must strike a balance between keeping people safe during peacetime, and also making sure that there’s operational readiness. It’s something that not just the US military has struggled with today.
Tony: Do you see that we’re going to be contending with this for years? Or do you think we’ll get over this in a matter of months or say a year or so?
Tate: I would put the time frame for the readiness challenge to be slightly shorter, 18 months maybe. It depends on how long, how many waves there are of outbreaks.
I certainly anticipate a second wave globally at least. I think that’s a shorter-term challenge and one that’s a little bit more manageable if you can come up with the right processes and procedures for what precautions to take. But it’s not just with deployed troops, but also with sheriffs working inside the Pentagon or civilians that are also supporting the defense enterprise.
There are longer-term challenges though. Some of what we’ve seen are militaries thinking about the new missions that they have to undertake. In the short term, this is supporting COVID-19 response and the longer term, refugee monitoring, border security, etc.. They’re outside of the direct defense sector and more in the security sector. But there are some new missions that the militaries will have to grapple with and a new, different sense of preparedness that will have to be dealt with.
Tony: In terms of things to grapple with, I’m just wondering about things like social unrest. We’ve seen a lot of economic fallout from this as people have to sit on the sidelines for months, as the industries have stopped, as things like deflation have set in with wages… There are not just the social aspects of being isolated, but the economic impacts also. What I wonder about is social unrest. Is that something that we really don’t need to worry about? Or is that something that you take seriously?
Tate: I tend to try and navigate the spectrum between alarmism and dismissiveness. In this case, some finding somewhere in between, but maybe on the side closer to the alarmism. This is a big deal. There will be spatial and economic repercussions and some states won’t be particularly well equipped to handle those. Whether it’s overturning of regimes or just extraordinary societal and political pressure on regimes.
Asia is a good place to start. Some will be more resilient than others. But this is a big challenge for defense and security communities and for political establishments for sure. Reshoring supply chains, including the defense supply chain, will just amplify some of those pressures.
Tony: Amplify the pressures in the manufacturing countries today, so the Asian countries?
Tate: Some of the Asian countries. Japan, for example, has $2.2 billion that were built into it. Most recent supplemental budget for reshoring supply chains out of China. Some of the others will get to Southeast Asia, some will go back to Japan. But the reshuffling of supply chains and the defense supply chain is not immune to that at all. This is something to keep an eye on for both defense readiness and for political stability issues.
Tony: In terms of that separation of supply chains, it almost sounds like it’s the opposite of the EU spirit. The EU came together with the Coal and Steel Union, then integrated manufacturing. The theory was, as they became integrated, there was less likelihood of conflict in Europe. Am I exaggerating? Is it the opposite of the EU theory and maybe something that you see dangerous over a 5, 10, 15, 20-year horizon? Is it near-term or longer-term? Where do you see conflict happening?
Tate: Returning to that defense supply chain as somewhat of an analog for the broader challenge. A couple of years ago, the administration commissioned a report on weakness in the US Defense supply chain. And one of the big findings was that the US Defense supply chain was over-relying on the competitor, which is China. Some chemicals that go in some ammunition and other materials are largely sourced out of China.
The answer here is to re-shore some critical supply chains. We’ve learned that with the medical supplies most recently. Part of the solution is to find your trusted partners and also to stick with them. And some of that can be regional.
One of the challenges coming out of COVID 19 is a geopolitical one, and it’s meeting the challenge of China on a lot of levels. And for the US, retreating back towards autarky might not be the right answer. We need to find the things that we absolutely have to have. Find the partners that we can trust, and try to engage them so that you have some partners to deal with, this is much broader challenge.