The unprecedented demands of the Covid-19 pandemic have proven to be both a challenge and an opportunity for the defence community. Governments and health authorities worldwide – desperate to maximise manpower and resources – have turned to their armed forces for unparalleled interventions in domestic peacetime affairs. In turn, mobilising wartime resources to fill civilian voids during a period of such overwhelming national crisis has provided defence ministries with the chance to test their military preparedness, and showcase new and existing capabilities.

The response has been diverse. From building hospitals and mobilising transport and logistical support to producing protective equipment and contact-tracing, military personnel have filled a vast range of domestic roles that civilians usually perform.

Even so, this use of military resources has not been without comment or controversy. It has, in fact, proven a novel concept in many (mostly Western) countries where a ‘boots on the ground’ approach is generally regarded as a last resort.

Alexey Muraviev, associate professor of national security and strategic studies at Australia’s Curtin University, says it’s important to recognise the unique challenges that Covid-19 has presented.

“Obviously the mindset – the strategic and operational philosophy – of militaries is to protect their respective countries from external threats,” says Muraviev. “However, we have seen time and time again, a domestic military response is often required for natural disasters like floods and earthquakes, and for human-made disasters like Chernobyl or Fukushima.”


The number of deaths among 49,513 Covid-positive US military personnel (cumulative) as of 9 October 2020.

US Department of Defense

An unprecedented crisis

According to Muraviev, military intervention is particularly relevant in times of national crisis because defence personnel are trained to operate in environments that may prove challenging for regular law enforcement. “Having defence involved in disaster relief is helpful because you are bringing people into areas that may look like ground zero zones – battlefield-type environments that untrained personnel may find difficult,” he says.

“The discipline and organisational structure that make militaries function effectively is due to the clearly defined chain of command. Most military units can operate fairly autonomously, so as to provide their own capability. In times of crisis, they might have bulldozers, mobile hospitals, mobile power stations and emergency supplies stockpiled in case of war – and that stockpile can become a national resource in times of crisis.” Even so, Muraviev says Covid-19 has proven different to any other recent emergency that has required a domestic military response. He goes on to call it “the most profound biological disaster we’ve seen in many years” – and one that has raised more questions than it’s answered for Western militaries in terms of capability and response.

He cites the Russian deployment of a biological warfare unit to Italy and the deployment of the Chinese military to establish cordons, secure perimeters and enforce lockdowns as examples of advanced – and successful – pandemic capability and management. Conversely, Italy, the UK, France and Germany were all caught short and lacked the capability to respond to the biological threat Covid-19 posed.

“Obviously this goes back to the ruling regime and the way those ruling regimes use their capabilities, but given the fact that the pandemic is a biological disaster, I think it exposed a serious dilemma for Western militaries: a clear lack of specialised capability to deal with biological types of contingencies,” he says.

Modern unconventional warfare is often viewed through the prism of counter-insurgency and antiterror operations, but Muraviev points out that this wasn’t always the case. “In old, classical forms, unconventional operations included the deployment of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons – and, subsequently, the deployment of specialised military units with equipment and personnel trained to operate in contaminated areas.”

Russia and China are both in fact signatories to the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC) and Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) treaties that supplement the 1925 Geneva Protocol. Those treaties effectively ban biological weapons activity, except for limited research, medical and protection purposes. The existence of the extensive biological weapons expertise displayed by China and Russia throughout the Covid crisis may therefore in this context appear sinister – not least given the latter’s liberal use of the nerve agent Novichok in bids to assassinate political opponents. However, as the US outlines in its ‘Joint Publication 3-11 Operations in Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear Environments’ document, states maintaining a precautionary capability is far from unusual. “Where deterrence fails, US forces may be called upon to conduct operations to neutralise CBRN threats or hazards,” it states. Even so, there has been a post-Cold War assumption that conflicts involving unconventional weapons would become increasingly unlikely. “As a result, there has been a gradual depletion in this capability,” Muraviev explains. “So, what happens when you are hit by something like Covid? Western militaries have, in my view – probably with the exception of the US military – come up quite short in providing a comprehensive response.”

He says the lingering perception in the West is that the 21st century will feature asymmetric conflicts in the mountains of Afghanistan, or in the deserts of Syria or Iraq. However, Muraviev says this false dichotomy, coupled with the rapid and deadly spread of Covid-19, left Western countries exposed. By contrast, Russia and China facilitated a more efficient Covid response because they had more effectively preserved their biological warfare capabilities. “The West had moved more towards providing generic logistical support in terms of manpower, equipment, discipline and individual training,” he says. “When soldiers do basic training, yes, they run around in protective suits and gas masks, and they go through contaminated areas, but how many militaries in the world have their own virologists? How many militaries have epidemiologists? I would argue that outside the US, Russia and China, the list is really short.”

Muraviev says Russia’s peacetime retention of some 20,000 troops trained in chemical, biological and radiological warfare served it well in terms of mitigating the threat that Covid-19 posed. “They engaged their military personnel in disinfecting areas instead of using civilian contractors as other countries did, and they have engaged their virologists to work on the development of the Sputnik V vaccine, which is partially a product of their military capability.”

Comparison of national responses

Despite their relative lack of biological warfare capabilities, Germany and Italy were able to deploy non-biological military resources well, mobilising medics and logistical support when the civilian sector faced shortages. However, other countries, like Australia, were slower to recognise the potential benefits of military intervention, and instead used poorly trained private contractors to manage what resulted in dysfunctional hotel quarantine programs. There was conflict, too, with resource allocation, with state governments coordinating the health response, while the national government controlled military deployment. “I think that there is this kind of disconnection when it comes to national emergencies – [people say] ‘No, that is not what you can use militaries for’,” Muraviev says. “Western democracies need to better understand the capabilities of the military and how that taxpayer-funded resource can be better used.”

But it’s not just Covid-19 response or management that has been caught short. The pandemic has also exposed shortfalls in terms of defence spending and the general reallocation of resources.

“Certainly, there has been a reduction in operational and training activity,” he says of the US and its allies. Ships were called back to port, and there were also some outbreaks on board – for example, on several US naval vessels and France’s lone aircraft carrier, the Charles de Gaulle. Some exercises scheduled in Europe were also scaled down or cancelled. For example, Defender-Europe 20 – which would have tested the US army’s ability to deploy an entire division into European ports and on into Poland and the Baltic states – was severely curtailed.

Muraviev again draws parallels between East and West. “On the Eastern military side, there hasn’t been any reduction at all,” he says. “In fact, most of the life-scale exercises that both the Russians and Chinese were planning went ahead – the only difference was that they were wearing masks.

The fact that neither the Russian nor the Chinese militaries suspended their operational level activities during Covid-19 demonstrates they are more resilient than their Western counterparts. “I think Eastern militaries have shown a greater determination – and perhaps some disregard for safety,” he says. “[It shows that] more authoritarian regimes have greater resilience to continue to undertake their primary functions in times of heighted national emergencies as well as during geopolitical crises.”

He says that in Western liberal societies, militaries are driven by an understanding that a single life is precious – an admirable attitude in times of peace, but “we need to understand that we are living through turbulent times and that the international security threat environment is getting more and more fragile”.

Throughout Covid-19, tensions have remained high in noted troublespots like the Baltic states – which have seen regular interceptions of Russian jets by their Nato counterparts – and in the South China Sea and the Straits of Taiwan, both nervously patrolled by the US and Chinese navies.

“What happens when you are hit by something like Covid? Western militaries have, in my view – probably with the exception of the US military – come up quite short in providing a comprehensive response.”

Muraviev says the fact that Russia and China have continued to pursue their national agendas abroad needs to be understood in the context of examining the effectiveness of Western military responses to Covid. “We didn’t seek a suspension of conflicts as a result of Covid-19 outbreaks – we didn’t see the scaling down of civil war in Libya, or the conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan or other hotspots,” he says.

He questions whether Western capabilities would be sufficient to deal with another major international conflict in addition to a health crisis. “While we have militaries in lockdown, operations being scaled down or ships being pulled back to port due to a fear of infection, we need to ask ourselves, ‘What if this emergency had happened in time of war?’ Would we be saying that we cannot keep fighting because we don’t have face masks or disposable gloves?” Militaries need to remain resilient and perform their core functions irrespective of the national or geopolitical sphere. Muraviev says they need to ask – and be able to answer – one crucial question, “Even in times of crisis, how can we also protect our sovereignty?”


Chinese personnel deployed every day in Wuhan at the height of the outbreak.

China Daily Information