Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

National Business Corps to the Rescue

In the United Kingdom, an obscure partnership between business leaders and the military pulled the country back from the brink. The United States and other countries should replicate the model now.

By , a columnist for Foreign Policy and a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
Soldiers practice administering swab tests at a tennis center in Liverpool on Nov. 6.
Soldiers practice administering swab tests at a tennis center in Liverpool on Nov. 6. Oli Scarff/AFP/Getty Images

Late last month, NATO defense ministers met virtually to discuss an increasingly urgent subject: the security of the undersea cables that transmit virtually all Internet traffic between the United States and Europe. If a hostile country were to sabotage the cables, daily life—especially now, during the pandemic—would immediately grind to a halt.

After their meeting, the defense ministers declined to say how they were planning to keep the cables safe. But one thing is clear: Even though the cables carry both civilian and military Internet traffic, they’re privately owned and operated. Any effort to protect them will need to involve both governments and the private sector.

Late last month, NATO defense ministers met virtually to discuss an increasingly urgent subject: the security of the undersea cables that transmit virtually all Internet traffic between the United States and Europe. If a hostile country were to sabotage the cables, daily life—especially now, during the pandemic—would immediately grind to a halt.

After their meeting, the defense ministers declined to say how they were planning to keep the cables safe. But one thing is clear: Even though the cables carry both civilian and military Internet traffic, they’re privately owned and operated. Any effort to protect them will need to involve both governments and the private sector.

Indeed, governments alone can’t keep their countries going during crises. During the worst of the United Kingdom’s COVID-19 misery, a group of business leaders volunteered to help the British Army transport personal protective equipment (PPE) and oxygen around the country and build emergency hospitals. In Sweden, meanwhile, ever since the Cold War, key business personnel have been assigned crisis management roles should a war unfold. NATO and its partners should build on these successful models and create national industry corps.

When COVID-19 struck the United Kingdom in March this year, PPE and oxygen needed to be sourced and rapidly transported around the country. The country needed temporary hospitals too, and fast. The government assigned the task to the Ministry of Defense, its fall-back option in times of crisis. The Ministry of Defense, in turn, asked for support from the British Army’s Engineer and Logistic Staff Corps, an organization most Britons had no idea even existed. The Staff Corps (as it’s known) leaped into action, using its expertise to get vital supplies delivered and temporary hospitals built.

The Staff Corps’ members are all commissioned officers in the British Army, but they’re only nominally military. In their day jobs, they lead engineering, logistics, technology, and energy companies. They volunteer their time for the British Army, just as their predecessors did starting in the 1860s, when the staff corps was first created by a group of railway executives who felt it was their duty to help the Armed Forces get around their newly railway-powered country. Since then, the members of the corps have quietly put their logistics skills and networks at the disposal of the Armed Forces.

And did the United Kingdom ever need those skills when COVID-19 struck. “In all my more than 40 years of service this is the single greatest logistic challenge that I’ve come across,” said Gen. Nick Carter, the head of the British Armed Forces, at an April COVID-19 briefing. So obscure is the Staff Corps that came to his rescue that Carter had to explain that part of the Armed Forces’ work had been done by “something called the Engineer and Logistic Staff Corps, where we bring in people from industry who work inside the military in times of crisis and provide expert support for how we might link into the civilian community to bring forward skills and indeed industrial support.”

By May 8, the military had helped deliver more than 1.18 billion items of PPE to British health care staff. Soldiers were testing the public for COVID-19, delivering tests to nursing homes, and bringing oxygen to hospitals. And the Armed Forces were crucial in quickly building six temporary COVID-19 hospitals, including one in London that it completed within nine days. In these efforts, Staff Corps support and knowledge were key. All this was great for the United Kingdom’s coronavirus effort. But COVID-19 won’t be the last crisis to hit the West. When the next one hits, every country would benefit from having support units like the Staff Corps.

To see how, imagine, for example, the effects on daily life of a severe cyberattack on the undersea cables that transport the world’s Internet traffic—the subject NATO defense ministers discussed last month. In a 2017 report, a British member of Parliament named Rishi Sunak, now his country’s finance minister, pointed out that “in a single day, these cables carry some $10 trillion of financial transfers and process some 15 million financial transactions” and warned that disruption of them would “damage commerce and disrupt government-to-government communications, potentially leading to economic turmoil and civil disorder.”

The cables have concerned military planners for years, and Russian naval activity is regularly detected in their vicinity. Perhaps even more worrying, according to NATO, both Russia and China are developing skills in sabotaging the cables. “It is important to understand that most of these cables are privately owned and it’s publicly known where they are,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said after last month’s meeting. Indeed, the Internet is full of maps showing their location. (This is to help fishermen avoid damaging them by mistake.)

NATO is clearly concerned, and the United Kingdom recently announced it’s going to develop “new capabilities” to protect the cables. But what to do if Russia or China manage to cut a few of them? NATO armed forces could try to punish the perpetrator, but the immediate challenge would be a completely different one. If such an artery were damaged, chaos would ensue. Businesses would not be able to operate; many parts of daily life would stop. (In 2008, ships in the Mediterranean unwittingly cut cables there, causing an 80 percent drop in connectivity between Europe and the Middle East.) Businesses around the world were forced into crisis mode earlier this year, when COVID-19 descended and firms big and small had to improvise on the spot. But when the next calamity strikes, countries and their businesses may not have the luxury of weeks during which to plan their actions.

And here’s another dilemma: Since Western governments own few companies, any one of them has limited options when it comes to instructing businesses what to do in a crisis. Armed forces excel at logistics. Although they can help in a crisis, though, they can’t field personnel to aid every part of society. At the same time, it is in most businesses’ interest to keep going during a crisis. They just need a way of organizing themselves. Indeed, many companies have expertise and networks that would be vital to other firms and the government if disaster struck. The United States’ Congress-appointed Cyberspace Solarium Commission has recommended that the president create a “Continuity of the Economy Plan” for such situations.

Governments can build on the Staff Corps model. If the 100—soon to be 120—officers in the Staff Corps could provide such critical help during the early weeks of COVID-19, imagine what would be possible if business leaders in other countries were to come together to support government efforts. After the explosion in Beirut this fall, an engineering CEO-cum-Staff Corps officer traveled to Lebanon to assist the local authorities on behalf of the British government. In the United Kingdom, the Royal Air Force’s relatively new 601 Squadron provides services similar to those of the Staff Corps. “These two are good specialist units, but you could have more, for example one for people in critical national infrastructure,” said Gerhard Wheeler, a retired British Army brigadier general who most recently led the United Kingdom Reserve Forces program, in a November interview. “You create a reserve organization and then you attract people into it rather than obliging companies and sectors to participate.”

Better still, during the Cold War, Sweden operated a system called war placement, where key experts were assigned roles in case war broke out. Engineers, technicians, truck drivers: Everyone with specialist knowledge had a wartime assignment. War placement still exists in Sweden, but it can only be initiated during wars. The system could, however, be adapted for the many situations short of war during which daily life is nevertheless severely disrupted.

A program inspired by the Staff Corps and war placement could be done on a voluntary basis. Governments in NATO member states and partner nations should invite key businesses to join their national industry corps, where participants would pool experts for use during nationwide crises. Participating businesses would benefit though access to mutual assistance during crisis, and so would the country. Governments could further encourage participation by offering specialized crisis training to participating companies’ staff. And governments would, of course, need to define what constitutes a crisis.

To be sure, in the short term, participation in an industry corps might be more cumbersome than doing nothing. But considering what happened with COVID-19, where some companies had to put their operations on ice while others kept going, improvising as they went along, having a plan would probably be worth the added responsibility.

There will be future crises, whether caused by natural disasters or hostile countries. Indeed, it’s telling that NATO is now taking seriously the risk to undersea cables articulated by Sunak and others. No responsible chief executive today operates on the assumption that undersea cables won’t be damaged and that supply chains won’t be disrupted. In a recent speech in Hamburg, German Defense Secretary Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer highlighted that risk. It’s certain that problems will come, whether in the shape of sabotaged undersea cables, no-deal Brexit logistics chaos, cyberattack, or mayhem caused by natural disasters. Voters and shareholders will ask: Are you ready?

Elisabeth Braw is a columnist for Foreign Policy  and a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, where she focuses on defense against emerging national security challenges, such as hybrid and gray-zone threats. She is also a member of the U.K. National Preparedness Commission. Twitter: @elisabethbraw