Coronavirus diary – Part 12
In the course of my career as an academic, I was privileged to review a master’s thesis in Defence and Strategic Studies from a university in Southern Africa. The piece of original research examined the security challenge of HIV/AIDS among troops in peacekeeping operations. This experience nudged me into looking at the impact of COVID-19 on the military, even briefly, from a global prism.
I start with the question: how is the military doing? In global defence ranking, United States (US) ranks number one. But it has been unable to respond strategically to COVID-19 despite contrary opinion, that the “US military has an obvious strategic and humanitarian interest in protecting its soldiers from pandemic diseases”. Interest is perhaps different from strategy; the former is awareness while the latter is definitive. It sounds surprising for a military that is supposedly primed for biological warfare. The argument of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Mark Milley, about the natural origin of the virus might just be an Intel-spin or covering an obvious lack of preparedness for an overstretched military. Even so, it is rising to the occasion and doing a few things in the battle to defeat COVID-19.
Importantly, Lila MacLellan of Quartz reported on how the US military secured a coronavirus drug, remdesivir, which has yet to win Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) approval for its service members. Pentagon is locked in a deal with Gilead Sciences in which the pharmaceutical company would supply the military with the intravenous drug at no cost. This was affirmed by Army Brig. Gen. Michael Talley, commanding general of the US Army Medical Research and Development Command (USAMRDC) at Fort Detrick, Maryland, who said, “Together with our government and industry partners, we are progressing at almost revolutionary rates to deliver effective treatment and prevention products that will protect the citizens of the world and preserve the readiness and lethality of our service members”.
Clearly, the US has demonstrated concern for its military formations overseas. For example, Africa Command (AFRICOM) is working with partner countries in Africa to protect its personnel and assist those countries as best as it can. According to Katie Bo Williams, the military’s combatant command responsible for the continent has also been forced to adjust to the COVID-19 situation. Brig. Gen. Leo Kosinski, the head of logistics at AFRICOM noted that “As it started coming to Africa, many shut down their borders, really limited transit and movement of cargo and personnel, which is helpful for preventing the virus but makes it even more challenging to move cargo and personnel to places that we need to”. In a seeming re-mission, the command has had to work “closely with medical logisticians to direct needed testing materials and personal protective equipment to ensure the thousands of U.S. personnel scattered around the continent — some in small teams in remote locations — are protected” while leveraging on its involvement in the containment of Ebola.
As of April 9, about 2,000 Department of Defence personnel have been diagnosed with the illness with one National Guard fatality while an estimated 46,000 active service members were deployed in field hospitals in the US. Meghann Myers writing in Military Times stated that coronavirus cases among troops jumped to more than 31 percent, a product of widespread testing. As of June 19, officials reported 13,232 total cases of COVID-19 within the Department of Defence (DoD).
The European militaries are not left out; hard-hit France, Italy and Spain have had to curtail military operations. There are reports about armed forces deployed across Europe to patrol streets in lockdown, disinfect public spaces and support border control. At one instance, Germany mobilised 15,000 soldiers to help local authorities tackle the crisis. It has also changed rules, with no roll-calls or mustering of troops and the quarantining of some staff. Similarly, Poland activated thousands of troops to patrol streets, disinfect hospitals and perform sundry collateral functions.
In France, where about 600 military personnel have contracted the virus, army command spokesman Colonel Frederic Barbry affirmed the cancellation of non-essential maritime missions and deployments as well as scope modification.
Spain, at some point had to isolate about 3,000 military staff. The country’s Chief of Defence Staff, Air Force General Miguel Angel Villarroya, noted that its naval operations had not been affected by the virus, other than the replacement of personnel serving with the EU’s Atalanta operation, a counter piracy mission, off the Horn of Africa.
Generally, large-scale operations of European militaries have been affected. Manoeuvre, an aspect of NATO mission in Lithuania to deter the Russians, had been suspended. Worthy of notice is the scale down of Defender Europe originally billed to hold in April and May this year, and from which the US had hoped to learn the value of Multi-Domain Operations concept that is being embedded into its official doctrine. As Jen Judson of Defence News noted, the exercise was “slated to be the third-largest military exercise on the continent since the Cold War and was meant to test the Army’s ability to deliver a force from forts to ports in the United States and onward to ports in Europe, and from there to operational areas throughout Europe from Germany to Poland to the Baltic states and other Eastern European nations, Nordic countries and even Georgia.”
For Africa, let me rephrase the question posed at the beginning: how are the African militaries coping? I look at South Africa Defence Force and the Nigerian military.
The South African National Defence Force that abhors internal deployment underpinned by the doctrine of defending the country and its people against external aggression is not suited for internal deployment to fight a dodgy virus as the aggressor. However, it was called to enforce lockdown. After an initial deployment of 2, 280 troops, additional 73000 that included reservists were deployed. BBC’s Andrew Harding described the whole process as “arbitrary and alarming—a clear abuse of authority”. With underfunded public hospitals, the 2.4 million dollars spent on deployment could have been invaluable in rehabilitating the hospitals. Experts on SADF, such as Professor Lindy Heinecken argued that the SADF was not prepared for this type of job. Given the democratic nature of civil-military relation in SA, where the democratic control of the military rests on the political leaders first, and then the military leaders to prepare the military, they seemed to have failed to prime it for a fight against an unconventional security virus and other secondary roles like peace missions. Nevertheless, SADF called up registered health care practitioners. Its health wing, the South African Military Health Service (SAMHS) commenced recruitment of doctors, nurses, emergency care providers, and clinical associates required to reinforce existing medical teams in the country’s fight against COVID-19.
The Nigeria military unable to defeat a decade old insurgency was generally enthusiastic in enforcing lockdown having for a long time taking over internal security role from the police. Its response pointed to what I called the Glover Syndrome in a preface to late Colonel Gabriel Ajayi’s End of the Road: The Travails of Infantry Officer; it is an orientation of the military that frames the people as the enemy instead of external forces.
At that time, it was apposite for a colonial military, not so for a post-colonial one. Buhari had directed a temporal halt of all movements in Lagos, Ogun and the FCT for two weeks with effect from 30th of March.
The army portrayed itself as being in the service of the Commander-in-Chief than of the people despite lack of adequate consultation with the sub-national governments in the affected states. We have no reliable figures of our military personnel affected by COVID-19.
Much of what we know is intentions. It was reported in this medium that the Nigerian Air Force was set to produce and supply liquefied oxygen for management of COVID-19 patients. The Coordinator, Defence Media Operations, Maj.-Gen. John Enenche, disclosed that the Nigerian Air Force had started operating its Liquefied Oxygen (LOX) Plant at the 103 Strike Group (103 STG) in Yola at full capacity to meet the mandate and aid the fight against COVID- 19. According to him, the plant is on 24 hours operation to ensure uninterrupted production of pure Liquefied Oxygen in support of the effort of the government in managing the cases. This is not new altogether; it was set up way back in the 1980s as forward operating base after the Kano facility that was set up with the help of the Russians a decade earlier. The military also claimed to have provided about 18 treatment centres while training about 80 medical personnel of the Armed Forces of Nigeria to manage COVID-19 cases and recall of retired Armed Forces medical personnel.
Despite intimidating defence budgets, the world’s foremost militaries were cut unaware by COVID-19. With increasing and complex scientific discoveries and enemies’ stealth, it is high time defence doctrines took on human security away from hardware. Frankly, this virus has so far defeated us all.
Akhaine is a professor of Political Science at the Lagos State University