In the middle of the Department of Defense support to America during the Wuhan COVID-19 crisis, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper in recent days has been the target of criticism. The anonymous sources, former military officers, unnamed experts, and senior government officials attacking from the shadows of “not-wishing-to-be-identified” are as odious now as they have ever been. This onslaught of scolding seems ill-informed at best and partisan at worst. If you can believe it, the Secretary of Defense is being criticized for “lack of leadership” because he is emphasizing readiness over a “need to treat this as a public health problem.” It may come as a newsflash, but “readiness” is Secretary Esper’s job. Maintaining a ready force to ensure the defense of the U.S. in an increasingly dangerous world is his only job.
Generally, the criticism falls into two categories. First, Secretary Esper did not exercise leadership because he relied on the chain of command. The military is a hierarchy where senior leadership provides broad direction and the commanders in the field execute that direction tailored to the circumstances on the ground. That seems reasonable. The field commanders are closest to what’s going on and should be able to provide specific directions to their command.
Now, as some have suggested the reliance on field commanders has led to a “hodgepodge of rules.” Perhaps if one is confused by a wing commander at Travis AFB in California giving different orders than Quantico’s Marine installation commander in Virginia, or if the soldiers at Ft. Riley in Kansas receive different directions than what the commander of Naval Air Station in Texas ordered, then yes, hodgepodge might be a fitting description for the uninformed. But understanding that Marines, the Navy, the Air Force, and the Army all have distinct missions and operational challenges requiring tailored orders to address a national crisis is what the chain of command is all about. One size does not fit all.
When the commander (since removed) of the USS Theodore Roosevelt penned a letter to the Navy requesting help that was leaked to the San Francisco Chronicle before reaching the Pentagon, leadership in the Defense Department had only passing knowledge of the missive. Democratic House candidate from California’s District 15 and failed presidential candidate, Eric Swalwell, asked Secretary Esper in a March 31 tweet: “How could it be that most of the nation read this heartbreaking letter before you?” Well, this is what happens when the chain of command is not used. Former Secretary of the Navy, Richard Spencer, was fired over “going outside the chain of command.” Now, Secretary Esper’s detractors are on his case for using it correctly.
The second line of attack on the secretary is that he and the Pentagon were slow to respond to what was a crisis back on January 22. The fact is that it was not recognized as a “crisis” then by the vast majority of the press. On February 24, 2020, members of the NPR reported that the World Health Organization did not consider COVID-19 a pandemic. The recent criticism stems from a comment made during an in-flight press briefing when one of the Pentagon Press Corps asked Secretary Esper, “if the Coronavirus is still not issue?” Esper responded that he had just seen the news on the subject the previous night and wasn’t “tracking that.” He followed with, “I mean, I’m sure my people, in terms of working it out … One person affected in the United States [Navy, at that time].”
This question came after a lengthy number of questions and comments about the terrorist attack in Pensacola, family housing, and an upcoming visit to SOUTHCOM headquarters to discuss disposition of forces in support of the National Defense Strategy. The SOUTHCOM discussion included force posture because the U.S. competes with Russia and China in South America, principally in Venezuela. At the time, these subjects were priorities on the trip to SOUTHCOM.
The Department of Defense has engaged dealing with the Wuhan Coronavirus pandemic as quickly and as intensely as could be expected. The disapproval of the Defense Department response is arguably from those who have the luxury of not being accountable for the consequences of their criticism.
Secretary Esper has used the chain of command correctly and has been responsive to maintain U.S. military force readiness amid the Wuhan COVID-19 crisis. That’s what we expect him to do.
(The views expressed are those of the author and not of any other affiliation.)
Read more from Dave Patterson.
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