-Brigadier General Santosh Kumar Dhakal
Commandant, Nepali Military Academy
A microscopic particle has threatened the entire existence of humanity. The COVID-19 pandemic has created an environment of looming uncertainty across all walks of life. COVID-19 has disrupted daily routines by halting trade, crashing stock markets, freezing travel, and killing thousands of people around the world. No one is immune, no vaccine exists to treat the disease, and nobody knows how long the pandemic will last. The effects of COVID-19 are particularly uncertain in the military, where it heightens the fog of war. Strategic leaders must discuss how pandemics like COVID-19 will change the world and how it will influence tactical, operational, and strategic levels of war.
Colin Gray argued that strategy must be subordinate and subservient to policy; strategy must be able to fulfill the goals defined by policy. Moreover, Clausewitz reasoned that a political objective must accommodate itself to the means; one of the pillars of strategy within the ends, ways and means construct. Political objectives must be recalibrated and reprioritized in the absence of the means required to obtain them. For example, the Governor of New York, Andrew Cuomo recently stated in a televised interview that the frittering of resources has contributed to the failure in handling the crisis caused by Covid-19 in New York. His main argument was to acquire concentration of force at the most affected place rather than dissipating resources in penny packets. Although it is easy to talk about policy, grand strategy, and strategy when dealing with conventional threats, a tiny virus has made these concepts look futile. COVID-19 has challenged the invincibility of super powers and has negated the essence of grand strategy when governments fail to execute coherent approaches to address the crisis. Localized responses to the virus at the tactical level in the military sense that are disconnected from the grand strategic elements cause gaps that undermine a nation’s ability to respond effectively. Great strategic leaders must be able to anticipate and prepare to counter threats to their vital national interests.
At the strategic level, a military genius is expected to see events beyond the horizon and develop a strategy that is consistent with the government's policies. Keeping in mind the unpredictable character of war, strategic leaders must anticipate problems and account for irregularities in order to end wars in the most desired manner. According to Clausewitz, “If the mind is to emerge unscathed from this relentless struggle with the unforeseen, two qualities are indispensable: first, an intellect, that even in the darkest hour, retains some glimmerings of the inner light which leads to truth; and second, the courage to follow this faint light wherever it may lead." The first of these qualities is called coup d’ oeil and the second is determination. The former emphasizes the ability to look quickly for far reaching consequences in the most unpredictable situation. Determination, on the other hand, reflects the courage to accept responsibility and moral danger. In the present context, the corona virus appears to have challenged both. . The whole world is struggling to understand the implications of this virus and, as a result, strategizing has been impossible. The virus represents a common enemy that cannot be contained by physical boundaries. It has affected the world and requires global cooperation and coordination to minimize the uncertainty and unpredictability that contribute to the fog of war.
One must also consider the culminating point when strategizing. The culminating point represents the point at which it becomes extremely difficult to consolidate gains and sustaining operational tempo, potentially leading to catastrophic failure. In 1812, for instance, Napoleon, failed on his expedition to Moscow mainly because of his inability to visualize a culminating point. He displayed the physical determination but failed to translate it into victory. COVID-19 represents a new threat that continues to evolve, making it difficult if not impossible for military leaders to define strategic and operational culminating points in the absence of information. Indeed, the value of considering the culminating point and its effect on other elements may be placed in question when preparing campaign plans at both strategic and operational levels.
Strategist must also analyze the center of gravity when developing a campaign plan at both strategic and operational levels. To quote Clausewitz again, the center of gravity is the “foundation of capability” or “the hub of all power and movement, on which everything depends … the point at which all our energies should be directed.” In a more simplistic term, it must be protected at all costs from the adversary. If the center of gravity is destroyed, then the whole structure of national power will collapse - the destruction of center of gravity should always be the grand strategic aim of war. During the first Gulf War, for example, the coalition forces used overwhelming force to neutralize Saddam Hussein’s Republican Guard, which they considered to be the center of gravity required to evict Iraqi Armed Forces out of Kuwait.
Unlike the first Gulf War, it is very challenging and difficult to define center of gravity associated with the COVID-19 pandemic. The virus is a microscopic organism that can spread through the air and affect all age groups, placing everyone at risk. Although we recognize symptoms of exposure and are developing preventative measures, there is no cure. Nevertheless, we need to consider the potential impact of weaponizing a virus like COVID-19. How would the first Gulf War have played out if Hussein unleashed a virus like COVID-19? Would the coalition have been able to end the conflict as quickly as anticipated? Wouldn’t that the center of gravity could be a tiny microscopic elements or would there be any validity of Center of Gravity in case of Corona or does it create a paradigm shift in the definition of Center of Gravity? It will be prudent to leave it to the readers to decide in the days to come.
The COVID-19 pandemic has reminded us of the potential for irregular warfare to challenge the essence of the US National Defense Strategy (NDS) that emphasizes preparing for a conventional war against Russia, China, North Korea and Iran. The NDS also reinvests in conventional power (i.e., tanks, aircraft, artillery, air power, and naval reach). However, the pandemic has placed the investment in conventional forces into question. A small virus can create havoc or chaos with the potential to defeat an opponent without firing a bullet. COVID-19 may redefine the defense industry and national defense strategies and may require more investment in personal protective equipment than in bullets. Nations may have to reprioritize defense expenditure and procurements. The use of all elements of power (diplomacy, information, military, and economy) may need to be modified when considering the unique context of today's threat.
Likewise, military culture is based on team spirit, brotherhood, and camaraderie and may be jeopardized by the need to maintain social distancing in the face of this pandemic. Commanders must consider how these conditions might create an environment of mistrust and suspicion among soldiers. Leaders need to ponder how soldiers at the tactical level will be impacted by invisible threats such as corona virus. At the moment, soap and sanitizer appear to be more valuable and powerful assets than bullets. Who knows, we might be looking at a war which is won by the party holding most of the soaps and sanitizers?
We are likely to see the full impact of the corona virus in the months to come. The duration of the war against COVID-19 and the fog that surrounds it will undoubtedly affect military decision makers at all the levels of war in ways that may change the character of war. However, as in all wars, the nature of this war will also remain the same, which is uncertain and depends on probability, chance, and maybe even some luck.