Security Brief

A weekly digest of national security, defense, and cybersecurity news from Foreign Policy reporters Jack Detsch and Robbie Gramer. Delivered Thursday. Available only to FP subscribers.

The Military Alone Can’t Rescue the U.S. From Coronavirus

Trump is calling on the military to do more to tackle the pandemic, but its resources are limited.

By Robbie Gramer, a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy, and Dan Haverty
U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper speaks during the daily briefing on the novel coronavirus at the White House on March 18 in Washington.
U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper speaks during the daily briefing on the novel coronavirus at the White House on March 18 in Washington. BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s Security Brief. We hope all of our readers are staying safe, healthy, and socially distant. What’s on tap today: The U.S. military is gearing up to respond to the coronavirus pandemic, NATO adds a new member to its alliance, and the United States hands base over to Iraqi forces.

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Can the Military Stave Off Coronavirus?

U.S. President Donald Trump and other political leaders have called on the military to help respond to the coronavirus pandemic, with Trump referring to himself as a “wartime president.” This week, he tasked the U.S. Navy to deploy two of its hospital ships to each coast to aid overburdened hospital systems in the United States as coronavirus cases rise.

Defense Secretary Mark Esper also announced that the military was redirecting medical supplies to the government to distribute across the United States, including 5 million N95 respirator masks and 2,000 ventilators. It will also open 16 labs up for civilians to process coronavirus tests. Trump said he will invoke the Defense Production Act to compel domestic industry to pivot to making much-needed medical gear, though no such action has been taken yet.

Calling up the reserves? The Trump administration has also floated plans to call up reservists and the National Guard to respond to the pandemic, as Politico’s Lara Seligman reported. Democratic contenders Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders have also urged the military to be called up to respond. Multiple states, including Florida, Iowa, Louisiana, New York, Rhode Island and Washington, have activated the National Guard.

Not a catch-all fix. Esper cautioned that the hospital ships and the field hospitals the military could deploy are meant for treating trauma and wartime wounds, not infectious disease. He also said that calling up the National Guard or reservists working in health care could take them away from their day jobs.

All those doctors and nurses come from our medical treatment facilities or they come from the reserves which means, civilians so what we need to be very conscious of as we call up these units and use them to support the states that we aren’t robbing Peter to pay Paul,” Esper told reporters this week. 

Limited resources. Even the U.S. military has limited resources. Given the rapidly rising coronavirus cases across the United States, it’s hard to see how the military’s resources would put a dent in the overburdened U.S. health system if the virus continues its spread and state by state lockdowns aren’t as effective as leaders hope. 

Meanwhile, the U.S. military is struggling to supply its own personnel with coronavirus test kits, even without demands from the civilian side of the government. As Breaking Defense’s Paul McCleary reports, none of the Navy’s 82 deployed ships have coronavirus test kits for their crews. At least two Navy personnel have tested positive so far.

[Foreign Policy has lifted the paywall for our most essential coronavirus coverage from around the world. You can read those articles here.]

What We’re Watching

The United States hands over base to Iraqi forces. The Pentagon announced on Tuesday that it handed over a strategic base near the Syria-Iraq border to Iraqi forces. The area is a hotbed for Iran-backed militia activity, and some experts worry that the base could eventually fall into the hands of the Kataib Hezbollah militia group. But officials representing Operation Inherent Resolve called the transfer “a historic moment” and a way to consolidate coalition forces after operations against the Islamic State in the region.

World leaders are catching coronavirus. The global elite aren’t immune from the coronavirus pandemic. Foreign Policy has a running tab of how many world leaders, politicians, and lawmakers have come down with the virus, from South America to Europe to the Middle East. The list gives more insight into how the pandemic is derailing politics and international diplomacy worldwide. On Thursday, Michel Barnier, Europe’s point man negotiating Britain’s exit from the European Union, said he had tested positive.

NATO to gain a new member. It may have been lost in the coronavirus fray, but this week NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg announced that all member states have now approved adding North Macedonia as the 30th member of the alliance. It’s seen as a major political win for the alliance as it tries to shore up Western influence and stability in the Balkans.  

Afghanistan withdrawal. The coronavirus is affecting everything, including the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. Quarantine procedures for U.S. military personnel could slow down the planned withdrawal of thousands of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, Military Times reports. 

Movers and Shakers

USAID chief leaving. Former Rep. Mark Green intends to resign his position as chief of the U.S. Agency for International Development next month to become president of the McCain Institute for International Leadership. Green was widely respected on both sides of the aisle and seen as a port in the storm for an embattled agency facing annual steep budget cut proposals from the Trump administration.

In the post for two and a half years, Green stood in stark contrast to other corners of the administration, where rapid hirings, firings, and resignations sowed chaos and uncertainty in the federal government. John Barsa, currently the assistant administrator for the U.S. Agency for International Development’s Bureau for Latin America and the Caribbean, will replace him as acting head of the aid agency. 

New Latin America envoy. Trump on Tuesday tapped Carlos Trujillo to be the new top diplomat on Latin America. Trujillo, currently the ambassador to the Organization of American States, will assume the role of assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs if confirmed by the Senate. The post has sat empty for nearly eight months. 

Pentagon moves. The White House has nominated James H. Anderson to serve as deputy under secretary of defense. Anderson previously served as Assistant Secretary of Defense for Strategy, Plans, and Capabilities, overseeing the Department’s program, budget, and posture decisions.

Defense industry shake-up. Lockheed Martin CEO Marillyn Hewson is leaving her post and will be replaced by James Taiclet, a Lockheed board member.

Odds and Ends

Even the Islamic State is taking coronavirus seriously. The terror group has advised its members to avoid traveling to Europe amid the coronavirus outbreak. As Reuters reports: “The Taliban have pledged their readiness to work with healthcare workers instead of killing them.”

The Week Ahead 

Saudi Arabia will convene an extraordinary G-20 summit next week to help coordinate a course of action to combat the spread of the coronavirus. The summit will be held virtually to comply with social distancing recommendations.

That’s it for today.

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Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

Dan Haverty is a former editorial fellow at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @dan_haverty