Though the pandemic has upended organizations of all sizes across the globe, the U.S. military and its supporting agencies have proven surprisingly resilient. Many have returned to normal operations or at least found ways to get the job done, five months after the crisis first hit the armed services.
Yes, the pandemic has proven a highly disruptive event, but not quite as much as many commentators anticipated in the spring. COVID-19 is no 9/11, which led to foreign invasions, decades of operations around the globe, and lasting transformation across the military and intelligence community. Likely pandemic impacts on the defense budget are trivial compared to the cost of the post-9/11 wars.
The aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt went into quarantine in Guam early in the pandemic, but the U.S. Navy has otherwise maintained presence and deterrence in the Pacific, as have other U.S. forces stationed forward around the globe. There were disruptions to logistics and the global supply chain that sustain these forces, but ships and aircraft didn't run out of fuel or munitions and the tempo of their operations hardly slowed. There have been few casualties resulting from isolated outbreaks.
Senior leaders and decision-makers were forced to socially distance and many had to work from home. They ceased the constant travel and in-person meetings that make up a major part of their responsibilities. Decision-making and high-level deliberations were no doubt disrupted for a time and items on the agenda were pushed back or cancelled. But fortunately, there was no strategic surprise or other national security emergency during the late spring and early summer that might have stressed undermanned organizations or caught senior leaders unprepared. And deliberations and battle rhythms have since returned to near normal levels, as have patterns of activity across many headquarters organizations.
Many multilateral exercises have been cancelled or scaled down, reducing touchpoints with allied and partner forces around the world. Key leader engagements and other diplomatic activities have been cancelled or curtailed. Everyone is in the same boat, however. Reduced exercises are not indications of damaged relationships; they are just interactions put on hold that will one day resume. Some key leader engagements and diplomatic visits have started again already. And in some cases, U.S. diplomats and military leaders have shifted to virtual engagements.
Temporary reductions in recruitment, training and maintenance will no doubt affect the future readiness of some U.S. forces. Slow-downs in defense production will also hamper the equipping of these forces and the availability of major platforms like ships and aircraft. But these impacts are no more significant in the medium or long term than preexisting challenges to readiness and defense production. Other factors unrelated to the pandemic may in fact be more significant.
For example, more than a year of heavy U.S. deployments to the Middle East in support of maximum pressure against Iran have kept entire aircraft squadrons, carrier strike groups, and brigade combat teams from resting, refitting and training to compete with China and Russia. The tempo of operations in the Gulf and the alert status that these forces have maintained has drained more readiness from the U.S. military than 14-day quarantines or restrictions on travel.
Finally, all countries around the world are affected by the pandemic. No matter the impacts to U.S. forces and defense production, China and Russia have been impaired as well. Their defense production has slowed and both countries had to curtail interactions that might create a risk of outbreaks among their forces. This is important, because U.S. strategic advantage is measured in relative terms.
The pandemic is not over however, and this is no time to declare victory. There will be cause for concern if it becomes apparent that China or Russia have managed to come through the pandemic with fewer negative impacts. The difference will ultimately determine whether and how much the U.S. military will find itself in a less advantageous position in the future. If China or Russia are better able to weather the impacts, that may also signal something about their resiliency in the face of another pandemic. It may also presage their ability to overcome other unexpected challenges and perhaps even turn them to their advantage.