Recognising threats

June 02, 2020

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The writer is a British journalist. His book The Bhutto Dynasty will be published later this year.
The writer is a British journalist. His book The Bhutto Dynasty will be published later this year.

IT is perhaps inevitable that armies are best prepared to fight the last war rather than the next one. As strategists plan ahead, they end up looking back to see what lessons can be learnt from the battles that have most recently happened.

And yet, the nature of threats is always changing. In the past, this has most often been the result of developing military technology. There is not much point, for example, training soldiers to conduct a cavalry charge if the other side has just worked out how to make and deploy tanks. But it is no longer enough to gather information about the enemy’s present and future military capabilities. Globalisation has resulted in new phenomena that add an entirely new dimension to the range of threats faced by a nation.

Militaries should be asking: ‘what’s coming next?’

To date, the most widely understood of these globalised-era threats has been climate change. With the science surrounding global warming and its effects now firmly established, it’s not difficult to predict the negative impacts that countries such as Pakistan will face. Even so, dedicating resources to overcome those threats seems to be difficult. Without exception, the world’s governments are failing to take appropriate corrective action. In part, this reflects a weakness of democratic political systems — elected leaders, after all, work to a timeline defined by the date of the next elections. But even authoritarian regimes that plan to stay in power indefinitely — such as that in China — seem unable to devote money to distant threats, even ones that are almost certain to happen.

The latest product of globalisation has come in the form of Covid-19. A century ago, if a Chinese bat infected some residents of Wuhan that is probably where the disease would have remained. But today, with so many people moving around the world, it was only a matter of weeks before we faced a global pandemic. Which brings us back to the challenges faced by military planners.

Back in March, the US Navy’s Captain Brett Crozier wrote to his superiors pleading for help as the crew of the aircraft carrier he commanded, The Theodore Roosevelt, battled an outbreak of the virus. By the end of April, over 1,000 sailors on board the ship had contracted the disease (the US Navy stopped issuing figures when the total reached 1,102) and one of them had died. When the captain’s message was leaked to the press, he was fired.

An inquiry into the whole affair has just been completed. Whilst it has not been published it is nevertheless possible to speculate on why a popular and well-respected officer was treated so harshly. Two factors were probably at play: his highlighting the risks of Covid-19 ran counter to President Donald Trump’s message at the time that the virus was like a mild flu. But Capt Crozier also suffered because his concern about the virus did not seem very manly or martial. Somehow, it seemed a bit feeble for a senior officer to be so anxious about a mere illness.

But the captain was right. With over 250,000 people killed by Covid-19 around the world, the virus has caused more damage than most conflicts. And any army that fails to protect its personnel from the virus will be significantly weakened when compared to an army that takes the issue seriously. As Capt Crozier no doubt felt like pointing out, an aircraft carrier with 1,102 of its crew incapacitated is no use to anyone.

Before too long, militaries around the world will have worked out how to respond to Covid-19. Which means the question they should be asking is: ‘what’s coming next?’ Every time a global disaster happens there is someone on hand to say: ‘I predicted this! Why didn’t someone listen?’

There was that one memo president George W. Bush received warning about flying planes into buildings. And there was the lone economist who saw the 2008 financial crash before it came. And let’s not forget that for many years now, some researchers have been trying to get governments to take coronaviruses more seriously. But there are so many of these warnings it is impossible to take protective measures against all of them. Watch out for electromagnetic pulses, some say. Or is the collapse of the internet as a result of a cyberattack more likely? And what about asteroid strikes, dirty bombs and gene editing in the hands of an incompetent or ill-motivated scientist?

So the military strategists perhaps should be extended some sympathy. And yet they only deserve to be forgiven for missing the next threat if they at last show a willingness to understand that in the global era they need to be looking out for not just for men with ever more sophisticated weapons but threats in forms we are yet to behold.

The writer is a British journalist. His book The Bhutto Dynasty will be published later this year.

Published in Dawn, June 2nd, 2020