“It’s a national emergency, and I would call out the military,” said US Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden. “We’re at war with the virus.” 

Biden was presenting his ideas for fighting the coronavirus during his first one-on-one debate with Sen. Bernie Sanders, who advocated for mobilizing the National Guard. Several states have already deployed the National Guard.

Reluctance from the Pentagon

Deploying the full military, as Biden suggested, is another thing entirely, however. American forces do have emergency response plans for times of pandemics, but Pentagon officials stressed that it cannot be viewed as a silver bullet. 

“The Department of Defense is ready, willing and able to support civilian authorities to the greatest extent possible at the direction of the President,” said Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman at a press briefing on Monday. “We just want to make sure that the conversation that we have is informed by the facts of what is possible and what is not and what those trade-offs are.”

Biden asserted that the military has “the capacity to provide this surge in help that hospitals need and that is needed across the nation.” Beds, more hands on deck, and mobile care facilities could all quickly bolster the US response. The Democratic candidate cited the military’s help in the 2014 Ebola crisis in Africa as a recent example of the military stepping up and performing emergency civic duties. 

It took considerable effort to convince the Pentagon to deploy 4,000 troops to Africa, however, because the military generally is reluctant to play a role in pandemics. They risk exposure to the virus itself when responding to emergencies such as Ebola or Covid-19. Because a large portion of the US military is young, they could contract the disease and never show symptoms before passing it on to other soldiers, patients, or family members. 

“That hurts our ability to respond without endangering the very people we intend to protect,” an Air Force officer explained to Vox.

The Military is Ill-Suited to Help

The military could provide medical facilities, often referred to as “tent hospitals.” It could even deploy its two medical ships, replete with operating rooms, 1,000 beds apiece, CAT scan equipment, and a pharmacy. Obviously the ships could only cater to patients along the coastal cities, but that would cover a majority of Americans. 

Even setting up tent hospitals presents issues, however.

“What we are really good at is ramping up trauma capability in a hurry,” said retired Vice Adm. Matthew Nathan. “If we just need beds, we are good at that, too.”

The problem is that 6 to 7% of Covid-19 patients require ventilators and intensive care, which the Navy is not capable of providing. Another snag with the idea is the issue of quarantine. Covid-19 has proven to be highly-contagious and quarantine is the first step in addressing it. Tent hospitals are not designed for such a mission. 

“Our hospitals range in size and range in capabilities that are very much focused and designed to take care of those in combat,” said Air Force Brig. Gen. Paul Friedrichs.

Deploying the National Guard also has trade-offs, which could hinder efforts to contain Covid-19, Friedrichs said. 

“If you mobilize the Guard and Reserve medical personnel from their civilian jobs, they’re no longer in their civilian jobs, and that directly impacts the community where they worked – whether it’s a natural disaster, or the coronavirus or anything else.”

Although Trump has not called on the National Guard, 1,600 National Guard soldiers have already been activated.

Limited Power

The Pentagon has plans for extreme emergencies, if the virus cannot be contained or turns deadlier. Establishing “mass casualty” treatment sites and shelters would be the first priority, the Associated Press reported. The US military would also assist with civilian functions like ensuring power and water services. 

It must be emphasized that the the Pentagon delegates first response authority to other law enforcement agencies. If it were to be called upon, it would only be because the National Guard, Customs and Border Patrol, and local police offices have begun to fail, which would be an incredibly extreme scenario. 

In that event, the military would be barred from serving as law enforcement, meaning it could not make arrests or even search people. Historically, Washington has avoided deploying the US military on US soil, even in times of national emergencies. 

Although the Pentagon does possess abilities and equipment that could assist first responders, it is not the best choice. The military, by definition, is designed more for battle and consequently, its medical resources are tailored to that end. It cannot spring up tent hospitals and efficiently quarantine patients simultaneously without possibly risking a larger outbreak.

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