Industry Perspective: The Time to Prepare for Next Pandemic Is Upon Us
The following is an excerpt from a speech delivered by William E. King IV, director and senior fellow at Booz Allen Hamilton Inc., at the annual Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear Defense Conference and Exhibition in Baltimore.
The Joint Force and military industrial complex is at an inflection point during what will be a decisive decade.
Geopolitical relationships are shifting, economies are rising and falling, rapid technological advances are fueling militaries’ modernizations at scale and external factors like climate change and pandemics are changing the way people live, work and go to war.
An undeniable and intentional international violation of sovereignty has shocked the international system and status quo. Large-scale combat has now been introduced into strategic competition between autocracies and democracies, further stressing the rules-based international order.
For the first time in our nation’s history, the United States faces two major nuclear powers that may employ nuclear coercion as a way to meet their national objectives. Both China and Russia possess the will and the means to pose an existential threat to our way of life.
The current environment requires the Joint Force to strengthen and integrate deterrence across domains, theaters and the spectrum of conflict; modernize the nuclear enterprise; assure allies and partners; and prepare to prevail in great power conflict. The United States must meet this challenge with enthusiasm, discipline and fortitude — the window to seize strategic initiative is now.
To do so may require us to prioritize the future over the present in a careful deliberate balance. A careful balance between executing required current operations while rapidly building bold future warfighting advantages immediately to deter now and reduce future risks.
In May 2021, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Army Gen. Mark Miley said it best: “We are now in the 76th year of the great power peace following World War II, and the structure is under stress. We can see it fraying at the edge. And with history as our guide, we would be wise to lift our gaze from the never-ending urgency of the present and set the conditions for a future that prevents great power war.”
Military power today is increasingly projected through access to data earlier and at all levels, through software, computing and networking infrastructure, artificial intelligence and autonomous systems. Infrastructure, technology and data architecture that enables senior leaders to make timely, informed decisions and apply the critical required forces at the time and place of need are the true enablers of victory and success.
Most recently, the COVID-19 pandemic, Afghanistan withdrawal operations and related critical supply chain management issues have illuminated the vital importance of the Defense Department’s existing data analytics capabilities to support decision makers and provided insight into critical data gaps.
A data view that aggregates, deciphers and provides a holistic lens of information to support the chairman and the secretary of defense supports decision-making in response to incidents that impact the department’s resources and capabilities. Joint data sharing across the defense community and with allies and partners enables a coordinated response. Expeditiously executed, courses of action can be assessed, risk calculations of critical low-density, high-demand capabilities analyzed and pre-positioning and deployment of personnel and equipment can mitigate loss of lives, property and natural resources.
Additionally, there are clear and present indicators and trends that we must not ignore or allow to go unchallenged. If we choose to not address these trends they will shape and drive our national security environment and will serve as threats to our way of life.
There are geopolitical trends where state and non-state actors test the post-World War II international order consisting of alliances, institutions, agreements and norms, established with U.S. leadership over the preceding decades.
Amidst institutional and economic fragility and the ongoing health crisis, adversaries will attempt to weaken U.S. leadership and rewrite international rules and norms to their own benefit. The United States, in coordination with our allies and partners, will modernize the international architecture to promote security and economic prosperity.
There are also technological trends, where rapid advancement and proliferation of commercial and military technologies empower non-state actors and erode long-standing military advantages that separate the United States from its competitors. Advanced technological capabilities will not be sufficient to ensure military victories. However, the creative application of such technologies is critical to shaping the outcome of any contest.
There are trends where external factors related to pandemics, climate change, demographic changes and resource scarcity destabilize the security environment and impose changes and constraints on domestic political context.
Extreme weather events — exacerbated by climate change — pose risks to military operations and increase demands on the Joint Force to support civil authorities, and resulting mass migrations have the potential to devolve into greater security problems.
Technical advancements across all military domains will threaten the U.S. homeland and interests in unpredictable ways. The time between indications and threat warning of tactical and strategic attack will shorten, and our actions and lack of actions at the tactical level will be played out on the global stage and will as it does today have strategic and long-lasting implications and effects.
U.S. opponents will also achieve their objectives by combining military and non-military elements below the level of armed conflict — a conceptual area known as the “gray zone” — which includes operations in the information environment, territorial seizures, political subversion, economic coercion and cyber operations.
Future warfare will include protracted conflicts in contested environments — what we call the competition phase of operations. We are living and experiencing this phase today and — in my opinion — we are not dominating the enemy.
Disruptive technological advancements will further alter the character of warfare. The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated that biological threats do not respect national borders, treaties or social/economic status. An infectious disease threat anywhere is a threat everywhere.
Over the past two and a half years, we have all seen and experienced first-hand the significant toll that COVID-19 has had and continues to have on our global society’s economic and social structures, including its impact on militaries and defense departments around the world.
The pandemic has laid bare the threat infectious diseases pose to economic growth, social programs and political stability, as well as global security.
Yet prior to the emergence of COVID-19, global health and biological defense experts had encouraged a greater focus on pandemic preparedness.
Protecting the United States from threats is a core responsibility of the federal government. We have robust national defense capabilities that provide us with broad and deep protection against human threats, including missiles, terrorism and cyber attacks.
In the 21st century, we also need robust national biodefense capabilities that will provide us with broad and deep protection against biological threats, ranging from the ongoing and increasing risk of pandemic disease, to the possibility of laboratory accidents, emerging new viruses — some of which have long since been eliminated from the globe only to recently re-emerge — as well as the deliberate use of bioweapons.
While the entire weapons of mass destruction threat spectrum requires and has started to receive attention and concern, there are growing concerns regarding new infectious disease and novel chemical threats and their potential impact on U.S. national security and defense interests. This includes the health and operational readiness of U.S. forces, allies and partners abroad; impairing national security partnerships by producing long-term economic, political and security destabilization; and diverting attention, resources and capabilities from long-term strategic defense objectives to meet the immediate needs of an incident.
The current pandemic has illustrated the seriousness of biological threats and how fast they can spread if early containment strategies are not effectively implemented.
As devastating as the COVID-19 pandemic is, I am not certain lessons observed have been learned. There is a reasonable likelihood that monkeypox may become entrenched in countries around the world where it had not been historically found.
Unless we make transformative investments in pandemic preparedness and response now, we will remain ill prepared. While there are important lessons to be learned from COVID-19, we must not fall into the trap of preparing for yesterday’s war.
The next pandemic will likely be substantially different from COVID-19. We must be prepared to deal with any disease or biological threat. Even with knowledge and tools that dramatically improved our ability to respond, COVID-19 has still been a catastrophe for the nation and the globe.
Serious biological threats will occur at an increasing frequency. Biological threats are increasing, whether naturally occurring, accidental or deliberate, and the likelihood of a catastrophic biological event is similarly increasing.
For the first time in our history, we have the opportunity — due to advances in science and technology — not just to refill our stockpiles, but also to transform our capabilities.
However, we need to start preparing now. The United States must fundamentally transform its ability to prevent, detect and rapidly respond to pandemics and high-consequence biological threats.
Importantly, the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed fundamental issues with the nation’s public heath system that go far beyond pandemic preparedness. These issues include the need to increase overall public health funding, strengthen the public health workforce, eliminate barriers to access, improve data systems, address disparities, improve communication and improve coordination across federal, state, local and tribal authorities.
The mission of transforming U.S. pandemic preparedness and biodefense capabilities should be managed with the seriousness of purpose, commitment and accountability of an Apollo program.
We celebrated how in just eight years we went from the president’s “Man on the Moon” speech to the creation of an entire new department, NASA, and spurred American innovation and ingenuity to build a space program that took Neil Armstrong to the moon and so much more even today.
An effective program to ensure that the United States is prepared for future pandemics and other major biological threats will require significant annual investment over a sustained period. However, the required investment is modest relative to other efforts to create the capabilities needed to protect the nation against important threats.
The convergence of traditional health security and biological defense is long overdue and is much needed action. We must continue to monitor, evaluate and resource the biological and chemical threat reduction enterprise to effectively counter existing and emerging global threats.
A critical component of the nation’s strategy for countering these threats is working in close coordination with interagency and international partners. No individual country, department or agency does it alone. It takes strong, durable alliances and partnerships to advance long-term global and U.S. interests, maintaining favorable balances of power that deter aggression and help lessen the security burden placed on any one nation or department.
Pooling resources and working toward shared objectives for our common defense is paramount to ensuring security and defense interests are met. Continuing to deepen the level of cooperation amongst partner and allied countries on these novel threat reduction activities is critical to achieving threat reduction long-term goals.
Retired Army Brig. Gen. William King IV is a director and senior fellow at Booz Allen Hamilton Inc., and chair of the National Defense Industrial Association’s CBRN Defense Division.