Russia and Global Security Risks
How Armed Forces Help Fight COVID-19

To avoid being caught unprepared in the future, it is important to plan and set up frequent exercises to test procedures and train the decision-making process. Also, in this domain, the armed forces, familiar with the organization of similar exercises, could play an important role and give a valuable contribution, writes Carlos Branco, Major General (Retired) of the Portuguese Army, for

The COVID-19 epidemic has evidenced countries’ unpreparedness to face such a challenge. States took time to react and to find out that their strategic reserves were not fit for purpose. Because assets at their disposal were insufficient, governments turned to the military for assistance. In this text, we describe how armed forces have participated in the fight against the COVID-19 epidemic. They have provided support mostly in two generic domains: healthcare and internal security. It has varied from country to country, and we could not find a “one-size-fits-all” response. 

We assume that states included in our universe of observation did not go beyond the declaration of the state of emergency. If the state of siege is declared, we will be acting under different assumptions, due to its direct relationship with the physical security of the state. In that situation, armed forces play a leading role, rather than responding to requests coming from civil protection authorities. 

Although the state of emergency does not mean the same for all countries, we can find some commonalities in the different approaches. When declared, it empowers governments to take actions or impose policies that they would normally not be permitted to undertake. When applied to the fight against the coronavirus pandemic, it means that the military is not the entity responsible for leading. It just supports. The wideness and deepness of the support depends on several factors: how countries are affected by the epidemic, national law considerations on armed forces’ intervention in countries’ internal affairs, armed forces’ resources, and how tradition and culture has moulded the relations between the military and society.

In most countries, national laws impose severe restrictions to armed forces intervention in internal affairs during peace time, more in the security realm than in that of safety. Armed forces are hindered to enforce domestic laws. This situation might change during the state of emergency, but parliaments must authorise it. So far, police forces have been able to cope with the deterioration of the security situation, even in the most pressing situations like those that occurred in the north of Italy. So far, there is no information on soldiers’ engagement in the control of civil unrest and maintenance of public order. But if lockdowns continue, governments may have to rethink their options.   

Operating in a supplementary role, armed forces’ participation in internal security tasks aims at mitigating the shortfall of security forces’ manpower, releasing them for more demanding tasks. While acting in support of civil protection missions, they reply to requests from the civil protection authorities/agencies. In both cases, a clear definition of the command and control relations between military and police forces is required. Spain is in a unique situation. The army has a special unit (Unidad Militar de Emergencias) that works under the framework of the civil protection, and in that capacity its soldiers act under the same legal umbrella as the civilian police, even during peace time. This status is not applicable to the remaining troops fighting the coronavirus epidemic, unless the parliament passes a bill giving them those prerogatives. 

The nature and extent of the support provided by the armed forces reflect their resources and countries concrete needs. Not all navies have hospital ships and the logistics capabilities of the US military. Some armed forces can manufacture medicaments. The armed forces of great powers usually have large stockpiles of medicaments and medical equipment and good connections with the scientific and industrial communities. Some countries like Germany and the United Kingdom mobilised reservists, others called non-active duty personnel to volunteer. The way how societies regard the military has also been a factor considered by decision makers, at the time of using them. Some governments are not keen to give them high visibility.

Putting aside caveats and restrictions, the list of actions that armed forces are performing in different countries is long. In the internal security field, and in most of the cases, armed forces have supported police forces performing a multitude of tasks.

In countries where borders were temporarily reintroduced, like Spain, France, Switzerland and Italy, soldiers cooperated with police forces in border control. In Switzerland, the army used helicopters and foot soldiers to monitor borders. The military was deployed in many countries to enforced lockdowns. They patrolled streets in quarantine areas, persuaded citizens to stay at home, and imposed social distance. In some cases, they did it using drones with loudspeakers. These activities were done either alone or in joint patrols with police forces, due to legal caveats. Operational needs and national legislation define how far the armed forces can go with these arrangements. Germany is preparing a military force to fight the epidemic comprising units not engaged either abroad or assigned to NATO, with a wide spectrum of tasks (enforcement of lockdowns, supporting the population, ensuring order and traffic regulation, protection against weapons of mass destruction, disinfection, and logistics – transport and storage of goods).

Another important facet of the military’s participation in the fight against the COVID-19 is their contribution to ease the burden of overloaded healthcare systems: medical units have supported civilian hospitals, military hospitals have sheltered patients contaminated with the coronavirus, and have deployed and set up mobile and field hospitals. Their tents were also used for numerous purposes, such as setting up makeshift COVID-19 test centres, at hospital entrances, thus avoiding contamination of medical personnel. Joining the effort to contain the virus, military medical staff also operated testing centres for coronavirus in vulnerable communities. In some places, military units transformed some of their barracks into nurseries to shelter patients not in critical condition. The US sent two Navy hospital ships to New York City and Los Angeles, to help hospitals overburdened with patients infected with the coronavirus. Military engineers also helped building makeshift medical centres to help populations living in critical areas. In extreme cases, like in Mexico, the military took the responsibility of running hospitals. Beyond repatriating Italian and European citizens, the Italian air force has transported material and medical equipment for civil protection, and logistical support for field hospitals.

Those armed forces with capacity to produce medicaments also contributed to mitigate the shortfall of medical products and equipment. They manufactured disinfectants, hand sanitizers, paracetamol, antivirals, and other medicaments that pharmaceutical companies don´t produce anymore but which are needed to fight COVID-19. In Spain, the airborne troops produced low-tech masks to compensate the shortage in the market.

The military also put their logistics services and experience at the disposal of the civil protection authorities and agencies to fill numerous needs. In Italy, they transported corpses from morgues to cemeteries, delivered meals in lockdown areas (sometimes via helicopter), and helped homeless people. In Wuhan, the PLA took the entire responsibility of delivering medical and critical supplies. Chemical, biological and bacteriological military units have also participated in the decontamination and disinfection of installations and adapted their vehicles to carry out disinfection of big areas. 

Armed Forces with extensive science research programmes cooperated intensively with the academia. The PLA medical service, the UK Defence Science and Technology Laboratory, and the US Army, among other military and defence agencies, in one way or another are working intensively together with the academia, supporting the development and testing of vaccines.

The military medical aid can also be an instrument of states’ diplomacy, thus adding a new dimension to the wide gamut of activities played by armed forces in support of the COVID-19 fight. This was the case with the humanitarian aid sent by China and Russia to European states (Italy, Spain, Serbia, etc.) and more recently Russia assistance to the US, actions with high visibility, which included the delivery of items in urgent need (disinfectant vehicles, masks, testing kits, respirators, personal protective equipment, etc.) and the deployment of subject matter experts (virologists and epidemiologists).

We hope that countries can learn from the dramatic experience caused by the COVID-19 epidemic. To avoid being caught unprepared in the future, it is important to plan and set up frequent exercises to test procedures and train the decision-making process. Also, in this domain, the armed forces, familiar with the organization of similar exercises, could play an important role and give a valuable contribution. 
Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.