The Coronavirus Effect on U.S. Defense Funding and Readiness

Sam Marrero, NESA Center

The Coronavirus has affected every facet of American life; the military and Department of Defense (DoD) are no exception. This new threat to critical security can’t be physically overwhelmed with force or superior firepower. The preferred tool of American statecraft – the military – must outmaneuver the coronavirus using a strategy of finesse.

The DoD can’t do anything without a healthy force, and personnel in foreign operating bases and ships live and work in close quarters, ripe for outbreak. The USS Roosevelt is the most explosive example, and undoubtedly our global adversaries took record. After a swift response and thorough testing, soldiers are now returning to the coronavirus-stricken aircraft carrier this week. 

Wherever the US military is, Coronavirus is there as well. The pandemic is touching every part of the DoD and its effects will linger long after it clears up. The fiscal burden of the pandemic on the military budget is only beginning to be realized. Already roughly 61,000 US troops are involved in the civil pandemic response, among them around 5,000 medical personnel and around 15,000 from the Army Corps of Engineers helping set up temporary field hospitals to treat patients in major cities. Such support is doable in the short-term, but prospects of a re-surge in the fall and winter raise sustainability concerns for a force also occupied with protecting American assets and interests abroad. That all of this must be done whilst employing proper sanitary measures complicates matters further.

Recruits stand for instruction in USS Wisconsin Live Fire Marksmanship Trainer at Recruit Training Command, April 27, 2020. (U.S. Navy/Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Camilo Fernan)

Special operations forces must remain responsive at a moment’s notice and will have to resort to creative means to protect themselves from the virus. Absorbing lessons from leadership on the ground will help inform this process. Force-wide, large trainings have already been canceled or curtailed, the Navy and Marines have hit pause on bringing in new recruits.

A new RAND study suggests that the coronavirus effects on the DoD Budget will be comparable to the sequestration effect initiated in 2011 due to the pandemic’s effect on overall GDP. In the nearer term, a vote on the National Defense Authorization Act of 2020 has not even yet been scheduled, and we’re already seeing signs of delay on weapons and other military acquisitions.

More Americans have already died from coronavirus than the Vietnam War, put short: an enormous political impact should be expected after wide lock downs end.  The United States will undoubtedly employ a big policy response after the pandemic, to prepare for similar threats going forward. Perhaps create a new agency or bolster the CDC? Public healthcare spending will certainly increase, as will strategic stockpiles of ventilators and domestically produced personal protective equipment. The massive DoD budget will be the first source tapped for these new efforts. US citizenry will only increase questioning the efficacy of our outsized military funding as the budgets of state and municipal governments, on the front line of the current healthcare crisis, brace for bankruptcy, cuts and austerity. Unlike other national security threats, blowback from the coronavirus pandemic has been viscerally felt by every American.

The views presented in this article are those of the speaker or author and do not necessarily represent the views of DoD or its components.