Defense

COVID-19 could hamper national security, new data shows

Image courtesy Govini 

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Could the coronavirus pandemic seriously diminish military readiness?

That's been a key question from personnel and reporters to Defense Department leadership in the past several weeks. But a new map suggests COVID-19 could significantly alter DOD's readiness -- particularly for tech -- as well as its modernization capabilities should a major portion of personnel contract the virus.

Govini, a data and analytics firm, released a heat map that looked at how the pandemic could impact ports of entry, military bases and installations, taking into consideration poor medical infrastructure, the number of available hospital beds and COVID-19 test kits in the coming weeks.

The map also homes in on where defense companies are developing DOD products and services might be increasingly vulnerable -- think the F-35 assembly plants and shipyards. For tech, that highlights areas such as Austin, Texas, and Silicon Valley in California.

David Berteau, president and CEO of the Professional Services Council, said it's not just a readiness concern -- which the military would never reveal to adversaries -- it's about what DOD is getting ready for.

"The military would never be specific, because it would reveal too much that you don't want your opponents to know. But secondly, you'd have to be able to answer the question: Ready for what?" Berteau said. "No military entity will say, 'I have more than enough for any possible mission I may undertake.'"

"The entire goal is to use this predictive model in order to anticipate and therefore surge resources in a way that can be maximally effective," Govini CEO Tara Murphy Dougherty said. "Because you are getting things in place either ahead of the crisis hitting at really bad points or at a minimum, not losing any time in terms of being responsive."

For defense readiness that means areas with ports and shipyards, which are key for transporting materiel, are susceptible because the workforce is highly commercial.

"The areas that I think are really concerning are the San Diego region because so much is pushed out of basically commercial shipping, civilian shipping and ports that rely on contract workforce in order to operate. And if you don't have contractors who are able to fulfill the contractual requirements because of things, like shelter in place or because they're ill, then that has a significant impact on our ability to mobilize for war."

DOD began implementing telework policies and travel restrictions the week of March 9, extending coverage for telework to contractors by March 20. As of April 1, the Defense Department has had 1,405 cases of COVID-19 and five deaths.

"There is a real possibility that the Department will be unable to conduct its priority missions because of a sudden cessation of work by personnel at key companies," Govini wrote in its report.

Govini used a predictive modeling algorithm that drew from multiple sources, including DOD's spending habits from 2018 and 2019, hospital data collected by Harvard University, Johns Hopkins University's database on the number of global cases and population estimates from census data. The result is a look at what COVID-19 hot spots could look like by April 10.

Defense Secretary Mark Esper intimated during a March 23 news briefing that warfighting readiness efforts could be impacted by COVID-19 if the number of cases increased and the need for social distancing stayed in place for many weeks or even months.

"As this virus ramps up and spreads, we'll obviously see more and more impact of persons in our ranks. I am confident that while it may have some impact on readiness, it will not affect our ability to conduct our national security missions, both at home and abroad," Esper said.

When pressed, Esper said that such impacts, such as curtailed exercises, were dependent on "if this pandemic continues at the scale and scope of what some are predicting," which could affect readiness over time.

About the Author

Lauren C. Williams is a staff writer at FCW covering defense and cybersecurity.

Prior to joining FCW, Williams was the tech reporter for ThinkProgress, where she covered everything from internet culture to national security issues. In past positions, Williams covered health care, politics and crime for various publications, including The Seattle Times.

Williams graduated with a master's in journalism from the University of Maryland, College Park and a bachelor's in dietetics from the University of Delaware. She can be contacted at [email protected], or follow her on Twitter @lalaurenista.

Click here for previous articles by Wiliams.


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