In the shadow of the coronavirus pandemic, since February China has increased its airborne provocations of Taiwan. On March 16, the PLA’s air force for the first time dispatched, at night, a group of fighters and surveillance aircraft that crossed the middle of the strait separating the two countries. Nearly simultaneously, a Chinese high-speed boat rammed a Taiwanese cutter off the coast of Taiwan’s islands near the Chinese mainland.
At the end of March, Taiwan’s deputy defense minister warned that “if the Chinese Communists attempted to make any military adventure leading to regional conflict, they would be condemned by the world.” Global condemnation would be helpful if China’s rulers were not largely indifferent to it. Stronger measures are needed to deter adversaries from exploiting the pandemic.
Heightened tension in the Taiwan Strait is a reminder that geopolitics as usual continues despite headline-dominating domestic and international events. While the U.S. political-media establishment was obsessed by Trump’s impeachment trial, Senator Tom Cotton identified the COVID-19 outbreak as the likely catalyst for a global crisis. Two months later, with the United States approaching the peak of the epidemic, global news headlines are overwhelmingly fixated upon COVID-19.
COVID-19 does not respect national borders—no state or group is immune from the virus’s dangers, both physical and economic. But it has neither dissolved nor transformed the international political system. States retain their interests, and statesmen implement their strategies to maximize their own objectives. Russia, China, and Iran, the United States’s three major rivals, have attempted to manipulate the chaos that COVID-19 has caused in their favor, and otherwise have continued the strategies put in place before the outbreak began.
While there has been a fair bit of jockeying for advantage during the crisis through the use of “softer” means, the core tools of geopolitical competition are neither public diplomacy and disinformation nor pure economic power. Military force is the final arbiter among nations. And the bad news is that the COVID-19 outbreak threatens to hobble U.S. military capacity, thus affording U.S. adversaries an opportunity to strike without warning.
The Defense Department contractor Govini Analytics has forecasted that COVID-19 outbreaks will jeopardize critical aspects of U.S. military infrastructure. San Diego is home port to three U.S. aircraft carriers and a Marine Expeditionary Force. Long Beach is a critical link in U.S. Indo-Pacific Command’s logistics system, while the San Francisco-based Military Ocean Terminal Concord is the only West Coast ammunition handling port. Should California’s COVID-19 outbreak get out of hand, either in the immediate term or due to a second wave of infections, one could expect worker shortages and outbreaks in the U.S. military.
Elsewhere, the U.S. Army’s major bases in Fort Hood (Texas), Fort Campbell (Kentucky), and Fort Stewart (Georgia) are vulnerable to outbreaks that would impede America’s rapid-deployment combat forces. The Ports of Beaumont, Texas and Savannah, Georgia are the United States’s primary hubs for European Command-bound armored vehicles. A COVID-19 outbreak that crippled port staff would eliminate America’s ability to surge reinforcements during a European crisis.
Indeed, one can identify already COVID-19’s effects on the service most likely to fight a war or respond to a contingency—the U.S. Navy. The USS Theodore Roosevelt is currently tied up at Guam, left with only a skeleton crew. A small number of sailors serving aboard the USS Ronald Reagan in Yokosuka, Japan have tested positive for COVID-19, increasing the possibility of an outbreak aboard the carrier. The Navy reported on April 22 that crewmembers aboard 26 ships have tested positive for the virus. It is conceivable that U.S. Indo-Pacific Command will be left temporarily without an operational carrier strike group. The USS Harry S. Truman’s strike group has transited from the Persian Gulf to the Eastern Mediterranean, replaced by the USS Bataan’s amphibious-ready group, a much less combat-capable formation. The USS Dwight D Eisenhower remains in the Gulf but could be shuffled to the Pacific to replace the Roosevelt, in turn leaving U.S. Central Command without a carrier strike group. The so-called tip of the spear, America’s aircraft carriers and amphibious assault ships, are clearly jeopardized by the COVID-19 outbreak.
America’s adversaries may be tempted to capitalize upon these perceived vulnerabilities. The United States retains regional air assets in the Middle East, but losing the strike capacity of one or both carrier groups severely narrows escalatory options. Similarly, in Europe, Russia can assume that a fait accompli against a Baltic state will not provoke a U.S. response for weeks, if not months, if the U.S. military is sufficiently infected. Most important, China may be tempted to strike Taiwan, believing that the virus could impair the arrival of significant U.S. reinforcements.
It is critical, therefore, that the United States take immediate steps to preserve its military readiness for the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic as a deterrent for adventurism by its rivals.
First, the United States should deploy any combat-capable attack and ballistic missile submarines currently in port and restrict access to their home-port facilities until the pandemic subsides. This will ensure that U.S. second-strike capability remains unassailable, while also preparing the U.S. attack submarines, the primary war-fighting tool in any Pacific contingency, to respond to a Taiwanese crisis.
Second, the United States should forward-deploy elements of its strategic bomber force, along with Army and Marine Corps units, as strategically necessary. The nature of warships makes the Navy more susceptible to COVID-19 than any other branch of the military. And though airpower is less flexible than naval power, by forward-deploying B-1, B-2, and B-52 bombers to Pacific and European bases, the United States becomes able to conduct deterrence flights over geopolitical hotspots like Taiwan or Estonia. Moreover, having an additional Marine regiment or Airborne brigade on standby in the Middle East would make up for the presence lost by the possible departure of U.S. carriers from the Persian Gulf.
As Cold War strategists understood, reliance on a powerful deterrence approach was inherently brittle. Nevertheless, the threat of sharp escalation can be effective in signaling resolve. Third, therefore, the United States should publicly put all military options to forward-deploy the most persuasive elements of our deterrent capabilities to the European, Central, and Indo-Pacific Commands on the table, while only confirming these should a crisis loom. Such steps might spark international backlash, but the risks of global displeasure pale in comparison to the consequences of a visibly unready U.S. military.
Finally, the United States should consider the possibility of a Chinese deflection strike against a regional power if the Chinese public becomes unruly. Chinese internal security forces are extremely effective, but not omnipotent. Should things get out of hand at home, China could execute a demonstration strike against a regional rival, if only to distract attention from its problems at home. Vietnam is the most likely target. It is outside U.S. defense infrastructure, has been willing to confront China in the South China Sea, and has come to blows with China in the past. The United States must make it clear that a demonstration strike to ensure internal support for the regime, whether against Vietnam or any other target, will be answered proportionately, and that U.S. forces will support regional actors in all contingencies.
One must note that according to current models, the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States is expected to peak in April or May. Considering the virus’s low death rate, particularly among younger people without pre-existing conditions, the U.S. military will experience fewer COVID-19 fatalities than the general population. But the virus’s ramifications for critical military infrastructure may continue for weeks or months, undermining American readiness well into the summer and early fall. A longer recovery gives America’s adversaries a greater window within which to act. President Trump must not only “flatten the curve,” but also ensure the security of U.S. interests abroad.