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What use is the military-industrial complex in the COVID-19 crisis?

The world spends almost $2 trillion a year on military forces, but they can’t fight the virus causing the biggest crisis since 1945.

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
4 May 2020, 3.14pm
1980s protest, 2020 question
Sport & General/S&G Barratts/EMPICS Archive/PA Images. All rights reserved.

On 27 March a US aircraft carrier, Theodore Roosevelt, put into port in Guam following a COVID-19 outbreak among its crew. In the close confines of the crew quarters the virus had spread rapidly and the captain broadcast the need for a response. He was promptly removed from his command, leading to ructions on board because of his popularity, and consternation in Washington ending with the acting navy secretary in the Pentagon resigning. Then the crew of another carrier, the Ronald Reagan, also caught the disease, and the ship had to stay in its home port, Yokosuka, in Japan.

These outbreaks had bigger consequences than the bad health of the sailors and the derailed careers of their leaders, however. Both carriers had been patrolling the Pacific in order to discourage the Chinese from being too ambitious in the disputed waters of the South China Sea. It was perhaps no coincidence that China then sent one of its own carriers to transit between Japan’s Okinawa Islands for the second time in a month, whereupon the US Navy promptly sent one of its guided missile cruisers, the Bunker Hill, through the Spratly Islands, claimed by China.

The Ronald Reagan and its strike group remain sequestered in Yokosuka, probably just as well as it now turns out that the Roosevelt’s captain, Brett Crozier, was spot-on in making such a fuss about that outbreak. The Theodore Roosevelt itself remains in port in Guam with most of its crew in quarantine, and almost all now tested for the virus. Of the 4,800 people in its crew, 940 have tested positive and one, Charles Thacker, has died. Pressure to re-instate Crozier is intense.

The navy is having to face other COVID-19 problems too, as another ship, the guided-missile destroyer USS Kidd, has had an outbreak with 64 of its complement of 323 testing positive. The Kidd was also on a Pacific patrol but has returned in haste to San Diego.

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Perhaps the best indicator of what the US Navy is facing comes with the current 'Flying Dutchman' predicament of one of the other Nimitz-class carriers, the Harry S. Truman. This nuclear-powered ship is currently to be found cruising off the US Atlantic coast, probably between Florida and Virginia, but unable to come into port even though it has been on continuous patrol for nearly six months. This is because it first put to sea long before COVID-19 came on the scene so is far too valuable to the Pentagon as one of its few major warships that is still available.

There is a still wider question, raised before on openDemocracy: in the light of incidents such as these, what are military forces for? Put bluntly, the world is facing the worst single challenge to human security since 1945 and the worst economic disaster for at least a century, yet traditional military preparations are irrelevant.

The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute this week reported that global spending on the military for 2019 was $1,917 billion, with the largest annual increase in a decade. As the institute put it: “Global military expenditure was 7.2 per cent higher in 2019 than it was in 2010, showing a trend that military spending growth has accelerated in recent years.”

Any possibility of change has to recognise the extraordinary power of what Eisenhower called the “military industrial complex” and it is a very tall order. That complex has massive lobbying power in any country with reasonably large armed forces and arms industry: how it works was explored in a column here a couple of years ago. The combination of profitability, frequent lack of competition, a ‘revolving door’ between companies, the military and governments, and the demands for employment are among the factors involved, always with the need to find new enemies.

Nearly forty years ago at the height of the Cold War some very good studies looked at ways of changing military postures on nuclear issues from offence to defence. One of these, in the UK, was the Alternative Defence Commission, funded mainly by Quaker trusts, which produced a comprehensive report, ‘Defence Without the Bomb, in 1983. There is every reason to extend the idea to a more fundamental analysis of security in the post-COVID-19 era. Such an Alternative Security Commission might well start by recognising that this era is a dress rehearsal for overcoming the much greater challenge of climate breakdown, for which military notions of security are scarcely more relevant.

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