Will the Coronavirus pandemic change the way the Department of Defense (DoD) operates? Recently, media commentators have direly predicted what COVID-19 will do to human existence as we know it; even the well-respected Henry Kissinger in the Wall Street Journal headlined that “The Coronavirus Pandemic Will Forever Alter the World Order.” Similar sentiments appeared in Politico Magazine in the article “Coronavirus Will Change the World Permanently. Here’s How.” Foreign Policy, in its analysis “How the World Will Look After the Coronavirus Pandemic,” echoed the same message: apocalyptic socioeconomic upheaval.
In the Foreign Policy article, Stephen M. Walt, the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University, suggested a more moderate view of a national security future after COVID-19. As Walt explained:
“What won’t change is the fundamentally conflictive nature of world politics. Previous plagues — including the influenza of the epidemic of 1918-1919 — did not end great-power rivalry nor usher in a new era of global cooperation. Neither will COVID-19.”
And so the DoD — a multifaceted, bureaucratic behemoth, ponderous and slowly moving — will do what it does. This is not to say that the DoD will go on as though there never was a Coronavirus pandemic. A saying in the Pentagon is that nothing happens unless the DoD faces a crisis or is “late-to-need.” There have been, and will be, changes in the way DoD does business — but at the margin, in the regular order, without major muscle movements.
The most important and certainly timely DoD adjustment will be increased funding for chemical and biological defense. The President’s Budget Request for the DoD Chemical and Biological (CB) Defense Program for FY 2021 is $1.3 billion, “aligned against the highest CB defense priorities for the Department, Joint Services, and Combatant Commands to improve near-term Joint Force readiness and modernize the force to address emerging threats.” Anticipate that Congress will increase the budget appropriation for CB defense, and expect the Defense Department to reallocate current budget funds to bolster CB.
Prompted by the COVID-19 crisis, many DoD changes have been more on the order of expediencies in business processes. A good example can be found in the procurement system. Among several initiatives, the DoD has begun to increase the progress payment rates to 90% for large businesses and 95% for small companies to add certainty to cash flow. Though defense contracts tend to be large in value, the margins are on average lower, on the order of 4% to 8%. Consequently, cash flow is important. Additionally, these payments will be expedited to the prime contractors and flow down to the small businesses. Increasing the progress payment rates and encouraging the rapid distribution of cash to prime contractors and the small business supplier base should be made permanent.
Another example: DoD will include pharmaceuticals as an integral part of the defense industrial base. Congress has taken notice that the United States is too reliant on foreign producers of essential antibiotics and other medicines. Estimated percentages vary, but approximately 72% of producers of pharmaceutical ingredients on which the United States depends are overseas. To address this and ensure that the DoD has an ample supply, Congress took an interest. Last year Representatives John Garamendi (D-CA) and Vicky Hartzler (R-MO) introduced the Pharmaceutical Independent Long-Term Readiness Reform Act, which mandates that DoD buy medicines and vaccines from American companies only. That means the DoD would have to adjust its procurement policies.
The Defense Department will deal with COVID-19 as it does any contingency operation: wrestle with the immediate problem and, where appropriate, bring resources to bear until a satisfactory outcome is achieved. Broader global issues will be treated as strategic events and incorporated into the next National Defense Strategy. In the global financial crisis of 2008-09, the world lost the equivalent of $50 trillion, or what amounted to one year’s worth of Gross Domestic Product, and the Defense Department was business as usual, making no major changes and soldiering on to fulfill its national security obligations. And so it will, even after COVID-19. The level of immutability in an institution like the Defense Department should be reassuring.
The views expressed are those of the author and not of any other affiliation.
Read more from Dave Patterson.
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