Pandemics: The Armed Forces as the Ultima Ratio?

John L. Clarke
Content Type
Working Paper
George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies
The novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) crisis has caused leaders in all affected countries to turn to their armed forces for support in an ever-expanding range of roles. Armed forces are being tasked to provide capabilities that in many instances go beyond what they have provided in past crises. As the crisis progresses and tragedy intensifies, the armed forces may appear to be the last resort available—the ultima ratio—to decision-makers. It must be expected that these demands will continue to mount even if the current crisis abates, as it is sure to remain a top national concern for months to come. This paper examines the range of roles that armed forces have taken on within the context of this crisis and places those roles, mission, tasks, and function within a scheme of six mission sets that comprise the defense support to civil authority (DSCA) rubric. The paper goes on to set forth a half-dozen considerations for decision-makers to contemplate before asking the armed forces to undertake these roles. In the current pandemic crisis, many of the tasks inherent in the DSCA rubric have been prominent in the demands by political leaders for armed forces support, such as the provision of essential services (many logistical and medical in nature) as well as search capabilities, decontamination operations, and engineering support. For example, armed forces in Italy, Spain, France, and the United States, just to name a few, have built and staffed medical facilities; transported virus patients; delivered food supplies; searched buildings for victims; and decontaminated residences and public facilities, such as train stations and airports. In addition, armed forces organizations have provided mortuary services, including the transportation and cremation of virus victims’ remains, which, of course, are contaminated. Photos of Italian Army units have shown convoys of trucks loaded with coffins. Soldiers have also provided medical support to overwhelmed facilities. Soldiers have been photographed administering tests for the virus, moving patients within hospitals, and providing basic services, such as changing bed pans and providing meals, all in a contaminated environment. French military aircraft, equipped for medical evacuation, have transported virus patients to less-stressed medical facilities in France.
Military Affairs, Leadership, Public Health, Pandemic, COVID-19
Political Geography
Global Focus