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Has coronavirus defeated our armed forces? Putin has abandoned a Victory Day parade and Nato's Spring exercise is kaput

Vladimir Putin attends a ceremony for Russia's Navy Day in St Petersburg. (Photo: OLGA MALTSEVA/AFP via Getty Images)

Vladimir Putin attends a ceremony for Russia's Navy Day in St Petersburg. (Photo: OLGA MALTSEVA/AFP via Getty Images)

May 5, 2020   7 mins

As the coronavirus pandemic has spread across the globe, there has been a lot of talk about the possible medical, economic and political fall-out, both for the immediate and for the more distant future. One aspect, however, has been less in evidence: implications for security and defence.

It is understandable that nations and alliances would want to minimise the harm and insist that, whatever happens, defence capability will be unimpaired — a part of defence, after all, is credibility. Even from published reports, however, it can be deduced that this is not quite true: there have been disruptions, some quite serious, to the plans and operations of many armed forces — and there may well be more to come.

Among the most vulnerable are maritime forces, which is logical, given that naval vessels share many characteristics with cruise ships, or “floating petri dishes” as they’ve been described. Crew live in close and often cramped quarters and use communal facilities for weeks on end.

An early alert was sounded in March, when the US Naval authorities faced a near-mutiny after the captain of the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt went public with a warning that there were several hundred cases of coronavirus among the sailors on board and that there could be multiple deaths unless action was taken. The captain, Brett Crozier, was summarily dismissed, but has become something of a folk hero and could be reinstated following an ongoing inquiry. The aircraft carrier was evacuated and is docked at the US naval base in Guam. Of a crew of more than 4,000, more than 1,100 cases have been recorded.

The UK has taken precautions of its own. The new aircraft carrier, HMS Queen Elizabeth — one of two controversially commissioned by the Royal Navy — had to delay its first extensive sea trials for two weeks so that all the crew could be tested for coronavirus. It set sail from Portsmouth on 29 April, but only after securing the agreement of what were described as “senior leaders across Defence”, and its operations appear to have been adjusted, with the Navy saying that “as a further precaution” the carrier would “conduct a period of isolation at sea” before training begins, it would be operating in waters close to the UK coast, and the commanding officer had “the discretion to cease the training if it is deemed necessary”.

The French aircraft carrier, Charles de Gaulle, is also smitten by the virus and currently quarantined at the port of Toulon, with a reported 600 cases. This means that of the 15 carriers (11 of them US) available to the Nato alliance, three are out of commission — 20% — and these are only the instances that have been reported.

Nor is it only navies that are affected. The UK is one of several countries that has not divulged the extent of the infection in the military, but there have been reports of unhappiness at the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst with how social distancing and other precautions are, or are not, being observed. Sports and weekend leave have been cancelled, and suspected Coronavirus cases housed in separate accommodation.

Some army deployments have been reduced. The UK’s training mission in Iraq has been “paused”, with most of the UK’s 400-strong contingent there being recalled. Troops have also returned from Germany. And while the Defence Secretary, Ben Wallace, insists that the UK’s defence capability has not been harmed, there has been some evidence of increased Russian probing — by air and sea — in recent weeks, suggesting that Moscow is testing what it might see as a new vulnerability.

Russia, though, has its own problems with coronavirus. Although the country as a whole has not so far been as badly affected as major West European countries or the United States, outbreaks have been reported in several Russian military units and academies, and the Prime Minister, Mikhail Mishustin, who said he had contracted the virus last month, is reported to be in hospital.

The virus has also dealt a big political blow to President Putin. He had planned a massive Victory Day parade to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the end of the Second World War — known as the Great Fatherland War in Russia — on 9 May. He had also hoped for a big turn-out of international leaders to signal Russia’s return from the diplomatic cold, six years after its seizure of Crimea from Ukraine.

The spread of coronavirus, however, has put paid to all that. Putin waited until mid-April before finally conceding the inevitable. The anniversary commemoration has now been provisionally moved to September, but it will not have the same resonance then.

Perhaps the most significant consequence of the pandemic in the military sphere, however, is the effective cancellation of one of the North Atlantic alliance’s biggest sets of manoeuvres in Europe since the end of the Cold War. The exercises — named Defender-Europe 20 — were planned to last several weeks during April and May. They were due to involve 37,000 troops from 18 countries, including 20,000 from the United States, and to demonstrate not only the US’s ability to deploy rapidly across continents, but the continuing US commitment to the security of Europe.

The purpose was to practise deploying a Nato force sufficient to combat an (unspecified, but clearly Russian) attack on an ally (also unspecified, but clearly one of the Baltic States). As such, Defender-Europe 20 was conceived as an unambiguous signal to Russia to keep its hands off eastern and central Europe and to those more recent Nato members that Article 5 — an attack on one is treated as an attack on all — would, and could, be honoured. (The US President’s lukewarm attitude to Nato had sometimes placed that in doubt.)

There was an additional purpose, too. The crossing of borders by foreign military personnel and hardware — even within the European Union’s Schengen Zone and between Nato allies — remains a sensitive issue, with convoys requiring advance permission, which limits speed of deployment. Defender-Europe 20 was also in part intended to show that this difficulty could be surmounted.

Except that, as the Coronavirus swept through Europe and then reached the United States, everything proved too complicated. President Trump banned all travel to the US for European nationals, while the EU closed the Schengen Zone. In mid-March, the US European Command downgraded US participation and announced the recall of most of the thousands of troops, vehicles and equipment already dispatched. Those who stayed would be redeployed to help individual Nato countries combat the pandemic.

Officially, the exercises have only been scaled back. What remains, however, are little more than fragments of the original grand design that had spanned 10 countries, with the main action in Germany, Poland and the Baltic States.

The extent of Nato’s change of plan came across starkly from an unusually gnomic “special” media briefing given by General Tod Wolters, Commander of the US European Command and Nato Supreme Allied Commander Europe on 16 April. In it, he made almost no direct reference to the disintegration of Defender-Europe 20, insisting repeatedly that the alliance would be “laser-focused” on delivering “effective deterrence and defence” and that forces remained at the ready.

There was no need to read between the lines, though, to conclude that the Defender-Europe 20 was now a shadow of its former self. A separate, Baltic-based exercise planned for June-July would at best be “adjusted” in its scope and scale and, at worst, cancelled.

It was a comprehensive admission that the best of plans, laid over many months by the leader of the world’s foremost military power and the world’s most powerful military alliance, had been totally derailed — not by an enemy assault, but because of a disease.

It is clear that coronavirus is having a direct and widespread impact on military operations in many parts of the world. Of those countries reporting the incidence of infection in their militaries, France had confirmed 600 as of early April, Spain and Germany more than 200 each, and the United States more than 1,500.

But it is not just the debilitating threat that disease poses to human capital that militaries will need to confront in future. Disease has the potential to exacerbate other vulnerabilities. Morale is one. If crew who have spent months at sea have no opportunity on return to reconnect with family without delay, how effective will they be as a fighting force when they next go to sea? If, to the usual privations of service is added lockdown or quarantine, how will officers motivate their teams?

This was the dilemma that faced John Lewis, the commander of HMS Trenchant, one of the UK’s three nuclear-powered submarines last month. He ignored the advice of superiors to cancel an end-of-voyage party at the Devonport base at Plymouth — and paid for that decision with his command. It can be seen as an isolated incident, but similar dilemmas will arise all the time.

The other, not unrelated, concerns propaganda. The fear and uncertainty that surround illness make it natural material for enemy propaganda to make a bad situation worse. A recent example was a faked communication from Nato Secretary-General to the Defence Minister of Lithuania, saying that the US was withdrawing all its troops from May, because of the strain on capacity from Coronavirus. The context of the cancelled Nato manoeuvres made this all the more credible.


It is hard to see how there will not also be profound reviews in military and defence establishments around the world. Doubtless the potential threat from biological weapons will be subject to renewed scrutiny; but the debilitating effects of a new disease on military capability — a disease with as yet no cure and no vaccine — will soar up the hierarchy of official concerns.

In recent decades, the top brass across the world have set great store by procuring the last word in military technology, from ships to fighter planes to weaponry. One of the reasons some senior officers are so wary of the defence and foreign policy review announced by Boris Johnson after he won the December election is that it lumps military capability along with diplomacy and aid policy — it considers “soft” power as well as “hard”. They fear that that this could reduce the emphasis on prestigious state-of-the-art hardware that would be assumed in a defence-only review.

In fact, the emphasis of defence leaders was already shifting towards new technology, especially cyber capability and unmanned drones. Now, the more insidious threat from disease will have to be added. If humans are seen as more vulnerable than they were, could this accelerate moves towards conflict by remote control?

That is for the longer term, though. In the short-term, the pandemic may be having an effect not only on military capability but, because of that, also on actual wars. An attempt by the UN Secretary-General, Antonio Gutterez, to call a global truce during the pandemic was blocked by the US and Russia. But the scaling back of Turkish operations in northern Syria and of Saudi-backed operations in Yemen have led to welcome lulls in the fighting. France has repatriated some troops from West Africa after they became infected with Coronavirus, and decided not to dispatch others. It is not impossible either that the spread of the pandemic in Libya and the emergencies declared in Russia and Ukraine could not only reduce the fighting in the Donbass, but force cooperation across battle-lines.

Which might just suggest a perverse side-effect from this otherwise destructive pandemic. Just as the lockdowns have brought unforeseen environmental benefits, could it be that, by reducing even slightly the capacity of armies to fight, the virus is offering some respite from conflict? Realism would dictate, however, that neither will last.

Mary Dejevsky was Moscow correspondent for The Times between 1988 and 1992. She has also been a correspondent from Paris, Washington and China.


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Tom Hawk
Tom Hawk
4 years ago

I have heard suggestions that this C19 is an almost prefect weapon of mass destruction. It has taken a number of US aircraft carriers out of service. Much of Western economy is now vulnerable to hostile take over in the stock exchanges. It has degraded Western economies, yet the country where it came from seems to be carrying on un affected.

One may argue that is down to the Chinese state monitoring and their surveillance culture. But that doesn’t alter some basic facts.

If it was an accident, I can still imagine a lot of people are working out how they can advance China’s position in the world.

Stephen Follows
Stephen Follows
4 years ago

On the contrary, we are now seeing that the armed forces are much better at logistics – and therefore at protecting us than the NHS. It’s the latter that won’t survive this.