COVID-19 Impact on Global Militaries

 By Mohak Gambhir
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The world is struggling today as it tries to combat COVID-19 pandemic and the people strive to reclaim some sense of normalcy in their daily lives. The pandemic really started to get a hold of the world in March-April as the virus began to spread across countries and continents. Most states were grossly underprepared for a crisis of this size and complexity and were highly overwhelmed as the virus gripped them.

Global Militaries, with their historical ability to effectively manage unfamiliar challenges, stepped up to play a key role in the international response by providing necessary logistical and medical support to supplement civilian institutions’ efforts. However, the militaries are not immune to the existing pandemic and its varied implications for them. The COVID-19 pandemic has brought about twin crises, a public health crisis and an economic crisis that is a result of the efforts to stop the spread of the deadly virus.

Health Impact of COVID-19 and the Military

In the short term, at least till a vaccine is developed, the health crisis is going to dominate every space as it threatens lives. Military space in this context would not be any different either. Militaries across the world are struggling to find a balance between their defence preparedness against external threats and protecting their personnel from contracting the disease. The complexity of this task was highlighted by the case of US Navy’s aircraft carrier, USS Theodore Roosevelt, whose commanding officer Capt. Brett Crozier was relieved of his command after information was leaked to the US media about the captain seeking help for his crew following an outbreak on the ship.[1] Militaries are particularly in a difficult position as their personnel usual work in close physical proximity to each other as they perform their duties. Another important factor is the internal movement of personnel across military stations and bases within the country and even overseas. Many militaries are responding by incorporating social distancing measures in performing their duties and also limiting the internal movement of personnel wherever possible. At the same time, major militaries like US and India which have credible external threats continue to insist that COVID-19’s impact on the military is only limited to peacetime operations and they remain completely ready to counter threats posed to their countries with full efficacy.

Economic Impact of COVID-19 and the Military

The other tenet of this pandemic is the economic one. The economic impact of COVID-19 has the potential to pose a medium-term impact on military readiness of armed forces across the globe. Most countries responded to the outbreak by enforcing partial or complete lockdown to limit human contact and flatten the curve of the spread of infection. This has taken a huge toll on national economies across the board. While states have been introducing economic assistance packages for workers and businesses, these have not and will not be enough to prevent substantial damage to economies world over. The post-COVID world will witness shrinking funds available for defence spending due to shrinking Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and government revenue, and states diverting their limited resources towards supporting their industries and bolstering health infrastructure. The International Monetary Fund’s GDP growth forecast for the US, India and China for the year 2021 is -5.9%, 1.9% and 0.7% respectively.[2] While these economies are expected to grow at much better rates in the next fiscal, the financial impact of the economic lockdown will be carried forward for over a few years. Thus, cash crunch for some militaries like India can persist for two years or even more depend on how quickly states can revive their economies. Till such a time, militaries will have to prioritise defence equipment procurement while retaining their combat edge and operational capabilities. Limited financial resources might intensify the struggle for funds among the various arms of the military.

Due to the economic lockdown, defence industry, like others, has also been disrupted to varying degrees as supply-chains broke down. Even when the lockdown is completely lifted, it will take some time for the defence industry to scale back operations back to pre-COVID levels. In India, a country highly dependent on imported defence equipment, there has been an acknowledgement of the need for the robust domestic defence industry and some reforms have been announced by the Indian government to this effect, mainly increased Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) from 49 per cent to 74 per cent via the automatic approval route, corporatisation of Ordnance Factories Board (OFB), announcing the introduction of a negative list of equipment for imports and further improving the defence procurement process. In the Indian context particularly, the insufficient stimulus package for Micro, Small & Medium Enterprises (MSMEs) has meant that some MSMEs in the defence sector might be at risk of financial ruin. Defence start-ups which in recent times have been playing an active role in fostering innovation in the Indian defence industry are particularly at risk of bankruptcy due to their relatively weaker financial base as compared to more established defence companies.

Future of Militaries across the World

The COVID-19 pandemic the world has seen since World War II. Like others, a crisis of this magnitude is well poised to disrupt established norms and practices across the board. The post-COVID world will witness establishing future norms in accordance with the experiences of fighting this challenge.

In the military context, COVID-19 has revived the threat of biological weapons and their effectiveness. The pandemic thus holds significant potential to shape the nature of future wars and bringing to the centre concepts like bio-security and bioterrorism.

Regarding the role of the military in providing security, there is a high probability of a policy-driven expansion of that role around the globe. This wider scope would not just include just deal with future pandemics but some of the other non-traditional security threats as well. Militaries across the world can expect a systematic shift from a security definition that involved securing borders against external threats or terrorist to one that includes some other tenets of human security as well.

End-Notes

[1]  Geoff Ziezulewicz, Fired Theodore Roosevelt commander Brett Crozier reassigned to San Diego, www.Navytimes.com. Accessed on 04 June 2020.

[2] World Economic Outlook, International Monetary Fund, Available on: https://www.imf.org/external/datamapper/[email protected]/ISR?year=2021