The military value-add in situations of crisis: the case of COVID-19

RIJASOLO/AFP via Getty Images
RIJASOLO/AFP via Getty Images

The breakout of the coronavirus (COVID-19) set in motion one of the most devastating global crises of our time. While COVID-19 started as a health crisis, the pandemic quickly morphed into a society-wide strategic, security and social economic crisis of monumental proportions.

Today, as the world awaits the tally of the full effects of this pandemic, it is clear that it has pushed back most of the achievements of the 21st century. COVID-19 has stretched health capabilities and reversed economic growth and development, causing immeasurable roll-back on education, well-being and security. In these circumstances, governments across the world have mobilised all their elements of power to prevent and manage COVID-19. Among the assets deployed to combat COVID-19 has been the military. Why, one may ask, does the military render itself for deployment against COVID-19? 

Although the military is doctrinally trained to combat what has, over time, been viewed as ‘traditional enemies’ – usually defined as foreign forces or interests, represented by organised foreign armies and formations – these have become increasingly less of a threat today. Instead, the world is confronted by an emergent set of new, unconventional, ‘soft’ but lethal threats and enemies of the people, business and state. Today, we are witnessing growing concerns about biochemical threats and pandemics, cyber-insecurity and transnational threats that pose existential threats to humanity. 

On the COVID-19 role of the military, @CSDefence_Kenya highlights the critical advantages of the military as its discipline, occasioned by the doctrine and chain of command, their level of readiness to surge, competencies to support civilian operations, and their logistics capabilities

A huge challenge in dealing with these threats is the lack of solutions for them. So, given the mandate of the military – to defend and protect the integrity of nations and their people – there is a growing demand to deploy military skills and assets to confront these threats, especially when and if other capabilities are overwhelmed. It is this reality that makes the military the institution of choice – as a last line of defence – for engagement when any country is faced with an existential threat. Thankfully, the military has a portfolio of assets that add value to combating threats to society. Unsurprisingly, therefore, the military has been deployed to combat the threat of the Ebola and Zika viruses, as well as whenever major disasters occur in various countries, large and small. In the case of COVID-19, we are witness to the deployment of the military across the world – in China, France, Italy, South Africa, Kenya, Egypt, the United States of America, the United Kingdom and elsewhere. 

Among the critical advantages of the military is its discipline, occasioned by the doctrine and chain of command; its level of readiness to surge; competencies to support civilian operations; and its logistics capabilities, including its multifunctional corps such as engineering, medical, transport, military police, etc., which are capable of providing specialised resource mobilisation, skills and services to society. 

In situations of crisis, such as the current COVID-19 pandemic, the institution of the military has a multiplier role that brings value. While remaining steadfast to the primary calling of its constitutional mandate – providing defence to the state against foreign-based territorial aggressions or any other aggression that seeks to take advantage of the confusion created by the pandemic crisis – the military can also be utilised to aid the civil authority to maintain law and order in situations of crises, as its constitutional secondary role, in the following ways: 

  1. Medical corps can be used to complement the efforts of ministries of health by way of boosting numbers of medical experts, providing spaces to respond to the crisis, providing advisory and expert direction as well as providing medical services, given its autonomous medical supply line. In addition, the military medical corps is an important niche in fighting pandemics, such as COVID-19, through the implementation of cross-border medical surveillance. This is possible with a well-managed medical surveillance on all entry points into the country. In worst-case scenarios, the military medical corps is trained to manage large numbers of deceased victims of crises, especially when the lead ministry is overwhelmed – as we have noticed in countries that have been severely affected by COVID-19, where the military helps to dispose of the bodies of the departed. 
  2. In Kenya, the military forms part of a multi-agency team in support of the lead agency (the Ministry of Health) to form an information fusion centre (command post) from where the coordination of operations can be undertaken. This is key, since it brings in the advantage of the intelligence collection capabilities of the military. It also has the ability to cover entire territories. When the situation dictates, the military may take over the overall coordination of the efforts of the crisis management team. Just as in war, the military leadership is trained to manage crises and to avoid any confusion and uncertainty that may cause panic among the population. The military also provides strategic advice to the political leadership on the steps and direction of managing the crisis. 
  3. The military has huge resource mobilisation capabilities, which come in the form of the deployment of transport corps to move critical supplies such as food, water, medical assortment and services needed during the crisis, among others. The military has a number of vehicles, aircrafts and marine vessels that can be used for this function. This alleviates the need to lease the same from private entities, which may exacerbate financial resources already constrained by the crisis.
  4. The engineering corps can be used to promote societal resilience as it wades through the effects of the crisis. This could include drilling boreholes to supply water to people, building schools to expand the existing congested facilities as leadership seeks to promote social distancing in schools, and building mass medical isolation units across the country to manage the swelling numbers of COVID-19 cases, among other horizontal and vertical works geared to promote resilience. 
  5. In addition, the military police – owing to its discipline and well-inculcated culture of integrity through the ranks – can be deployed to impose measures that may stifle freedoms and which are otherwise deemed necessary, even when they seem unpopular. These measures should be undertaken in support of the lead ministry and civil police components. Example of such measures include imposing curfews, forced isolation and restriction of movement. 
  6. Finally, there is the growing engagement of the military in the search for solutions. At present, a number of military scientific research units are engaged in the search for a vaccine – and this is likely to move into testing of these vaccines. The security of the strategic installations that are involved in this research is critical and, in most cases, it is the military that can secure them and protect the pathogens and research materials that are likely to lead us to a vaccine and eventual cure for COVID-19 or any other pandemic.  

To conclude, the current deployment of the military in several African countries to combat the COVID-19 pandemic attests to the value of these important assets across the world. The doctrine, competence, state of readiness and assets make the military an actor of choice when dealing with threatening situations, including pandemics. Its ability to continue executing this role and protecting society depends on the extent to which countries invest in enhancing their mission readiness. 

Dr. Monica Juma is a Kenyan diplomat who currently serves as Kenya’s Defense Cabinet Secretary. She previously served as the Cabinet Secretary for Foreign Affairs in the Republic of Kenya.  Before assuming this position in February 2018, Juma served as the Principal Secretary in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) between January 2016 and February 2018. She served as the Principal Secretary in the Department of Interior, Ministry of Interior and Coordination of National Government where she led a team that drove reforms and transformation of the national security policy, architecture and operations within the National Administration, the Immigration and Registration of Persons departments, as well as the National Police Service. She also initiated work that led to the development of Kenya’s strategy on Counter-Terrorism and Violent Extremism and creation of multi-agencies approach in tackling security challenges. Collectively, these measures reduced Kenya’s vulnerability to terrorist attacks, remarkably and restored security across the country. In addition, the efforts laid a sound foundation for the continuing improvement of public safety and security. Prior to serving in the Ministry of Interior, Juma served as the Principal Secretary in the Ministry of Defence where she was instrumental in strengthening the business process systems within the ministry, clarifying the strategic orientation and bolstering the professional stature of the Kenya Defence

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