By Bill Beaver, Yong-Bee Lim, Christine Parthemore and Andy Weber
On February 4, 2021, Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III released a statement on the initiation of a Global Posture Review (GPR) – a comprehensive review of the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) footprint, resources, strategy, and missions. Led by the Acting Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Amanda J. Dory, this review will also include crucial consultation with allies and partners to help inform future allocation of military forces and resources in the pursuit of national interests.
The GPR’s strategic examination of DoD’s global footprint provides an opportunity to highlight how countering biological threats augments readiness and U.S. power projection. This includes:
- Allies and Partners: DoD already works with many allies and other Outside the Continental United States (OCONUS) basing nations on addressing shared vulnerability to biological threats (e.g., via US Forces-Korea). The GPR should commit to enhancing this defense cooperation as the force posture evolves.
- Naval Assets: Deployed Naval forces have unique health vulnerabilities, as the spread of COVID-19 among naval forces has made clear. The GPR should help set the requirement for rapid disease detection capabilities (e.g., on aircraft carriers) that match the limitations of these use environments.
- Special Forces: Special Operations Forces, and others that may operate in remote areas, face unique disease threats. The GPR should note the importance of DoD’s specialized work to protect against these threats and push for advancing new capabilities to address them.
- OCONUS Bases: DoD’s OCONUS bases can house early warning and rapid response capabilities for biological threats, such as pathogen surveillance and medical countermeasure manufacturing. Many carry out some of this work today and it should be expanded.
- Materiel Readiness & Logistics: While DoD keeps adequate reserve stocks of ammunition and materiel, it does not have forward medical materiel to manage large scale biological events or other complex humanitarian disasters. DoD should work with the Department of Health and Human Services to either establish an OCONUS counterpart to the Strategic National Stockpile or consider leveraging forward-deployed manufacturing infrastructure to address this critical issue. Having robust logistics and training to get medical materiel out in a safe, efficient, accountable, and orderly manner should also be prioritized.
- Interagency Coordination: DoD should increase cross-agency collaboration to counter biological threats in support of the U.S. overseas footprint.
- Continuity of Operations: In assessing its footprint and missions, continuity of operations in the event of a large-scale biological event that significantly undermines force effectiveness in an affected region should be considered. In case of especially serious global events that could affect general medical countermeasure production, locations that could be staffed and equipped to quickly produce diagnostics and medical countermeasures for the U.S. military, government leadership and affected populations could improve resilience.
- Strategic Awareness: The global presence of DoD functions as an early-warning asset for a variety of threats, including biological ones. It is paramount that the DoD maintain and keep building this strategic awareness.
These are just a few examples of how defending DoD personnel and assets against biological threats should be woven into the GPR and the next National Defense Strategy. Moreover, the effects of COVID-19 on DoD may perversely incentivize adversaries to reconsider the development of biological weapons. DoD leaders can help deter this by projecting proactive, robust work in countering such threats. Following the GPR, the Assistant Secretary for Nuclear, Chemical, and Biological Defense Programs – along with Combatant Command (COCOM) leaders, the director of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), and others – should conduct a full status review of DoD’s portfolio of work against biological threats, and identify 5-year opportunities to continue improving capabilities and international partnerships.