Certainly, covid-19 has had a “demonstration effect,” several analysts said. It shows how suddenly the global economy can be brought to a near-standstill by a new pathogen whose origins, transmission and effects are still murky, more than three months after the initial outbreak in China.
“Our form of democracy is vulnerable in the extreme. And any adversary who failed to notice would be brain-dead,” messaged Graham Allison, a leading strategist and a professor at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.
But the covid-19 narrative also shows how problematic it would be to use a pathogen as a bioweapon. The attacker would be nearly as vulnerable as the target as the pandemic spread. Such a blight might be appealing to anarchists who sought only global destruction. But an Islamist terrorist group, say, would have to expect that the pathogen could kill as many of the Muslim faithful as unbelievers.
A bio-engineered weapon that kills Indo-Europeans, say, but spares Han Chinese remains hard to engineer, defense analysts say. That’s because human beings are more alike in their genetic makeup than they are different.
Our personal DNA is so specific that it’s possible to target an individual, as the Atlantic noted in a pathbreaking 2012 article, “Hacking the President’s DNA.” But scientists say it would be hard to target individual nations, troop units or even racial groups without risking uncontrolled spread.
What about warriors who don’t get sick? The pandemic’s ability to cripple the mighty nuclear aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt shows the vulnerability of military forces to disease. In the aftermath of the pandemic, many defense analysts will step up their arguments to shift the Pentagon budget toward autonomous ships, planes and ground systems that can resist pathogens, natural or bio-engineered.
But analysts caution that this transition won’t be easy, and not just because of the political constituencies that support aircraft carriers. U.S. military planners truly believe that the United States’ strategic depth is smart human commanders on the ground, around the world.
Explained Philip Zelikow, a defense analyst at the University of Virginia: “No country is now more deeply invested in those legacy notions and paradigms than the United States, and no country faces more difficult challenges of adjustment.” But with ballooning deficits, “folks will look a little harder about just what war, exactly, we are thinking about, with less tolerance for ‘Let’s just increase the [Defense Department] topline,’ ” Zelikow told me.
The covid-19 crisis has prompted calls for better intelligence collection about such exotic global threats, and better global monitoring is a must. But the pandemic’s spread wasn’t so much a failure to anticipate the danger, but to execute policy effectively. President Trump was catastrophically slow and disorganized, but Wall Street financial markets, military leaders and even public health planners also didn’t respond presciently to early warnings from China.
Richard Danzig, a former Navy secretary and a leading defense strategist, argues that human beings simply aren’t well equipped to understand how fast the world can be transformed by exponential change. A new phenomenon may be doubling every few days, but to most observers it still looks very small weeks later. By the time the threat is obvious, it’s too late to contain some of the damage.
The Pentagon will certainly prepare better for the next pandemic, as will civilians in federal, state and local governments. We’ll probably enter a new age of strategic stockpiles, in which we’ll warehouse vastly more ventilators and face masks than we would need, even in a crisis far worse than this.
Lessons learned from past wars often are forgotten when new wars begin, and that will be true with disease outbreaks, too. Defense analysts note how quickly the world returned to the old “normal” after the devastation of the 1918 influenza pandemic.
But militaries are adaptive, learning systems. We’re now like Taiwan, Singapore and South Korea, which experienced the SARS outbreak in 2003 and were better prepared than other countries for covid-19. Maybe that’s the good news: Fighting a pandemic is now embedded in America’s muscle memory.