The pandemic continues and each day we find out new things about ourselves, our society, our politics, and our economy. Sometimes the TV and print media explore those discoveries in detailed, fact-checked articles. Sometimes, insights just kind of sneak in between the lines. I like peeking between the lines, so here’s what I have been thinking about.
Our Military Security
Until now, we have defined national security purely in military terms. That seemed to make sense because threats came in the form of wars, police actions, external terrorist attacks, and domestic terrorism. All involved violence in some form that required military and police force to win or put down.
The federal government, with the eager cooperation of what President Eisenhower termed the military-industrial complex, thus framed the defense of America as preventing invasion, winning a war on foreign soil, or stopping an enemy from attacking us abroad. That meant (A) keeping our armed forces strong; (B) providing our military with the weapons and tools that they needed; and (C) developing new (and extremely expensive) weapons systems to ensure that we never again get caught fighting a new war with outdated armament.
Above all, we needed a huge budget for the Department of Defense to support our warfighting ability.
Undermining National Security
Now, for the first time, we understand that communicable disease and global pandemics can also pose a threat to national security. Covid-19 has already:
- Killed tens of thousands of American citizens on American soil.
- Shut down the economy of the United States and thrown millions of people out of work.
- Caused good food to be buried, plowed under and flushed down the drain.
- Put our entire healthcare network at risk and demonstrated the need for universal healthcare because an infected person without healthcare can transmit the disease to many others.
Covid-19 It has even begun compromising our warfighting ability by sickening members of the military. And what better time to attack the United States than when the country is closed down, manufacturing is producing ventilators instead of weapons, and our military warfighting capability is compromised?
The Broken Supply Chain
There are a lot of reasons why our response to the pandemic has been less than optimal and I am not going to deal with the political ones in this post. (Or ever. The news media do that far better than I.) No, what jumped out at me was the broken supply chain.
Our doctors, nurses, and other healthcare professionals don’t have the personal protection equipment they need because manufacturing them has been left to the private sector. While the government may purchase and stockpile masks, face shields, suits, and ventilators afterward, it plays no part in the manufacturing process.
Private industry has done what it does best—operated as efficiently as possible and saved money wherever they could. In pursuit of high stock prices and a solid bottom line, best business practices have included
- Purchasing raw materials and components from sources in multiple countries
- Offshoring the manufacture and/or assembly of the final product
- Implementing just-in-time manufacturing
- Maintaining minimal inventory
This process works just fine when the world is also working fine. Components move smoothly from place to place. Workers in Asian sweatshops sew, and assemble. Planes, trains and container ships carry finished product. Trucks deliver the goods when they are needed to warehouses sized for just the right amount. It’s all good.
Breaking the Supply Chain
Unfortunately, it doesn’t take much to break this supply chain. For decades, however, we were fortunate. Aside from blips here and there, the supply chain held firm. Sure, an Icelandic volcano grounded airplanes for a while but the ash cloud didn’t last long and ships could take over short-term. A fire in a sweatshop could cause a temporary shortage in a particular product line but the manufacturer could shift production to another factory without skipping a beat. Besides, sneakers and sweatshirts don’t constitute critical equipment
Until now, therefore, no one has seen the manufacture of medical devices and healthcare equipment as a national security issue. It has taken a global pandemic to accomplish that.
The Foreign Connection
Before the coronavirus emerged in China, that country made half the world’s face masks and most of the rest are made in Taiwan. But the Chinese government halted exports to reserve the supply for their citizens. Ventilators require crucial parts, such as hoses, valves, motors and electronics. Some of them came from China, the original epicenter of the outbreak. The majority of ventilators came from Switzerland.
Offshoring means putting your national security in the hands of other countries with their own objectives and demands. When push comes to shove, countries act to stop export of critical materials needed by their citizens to other countries. The United States has done this and so have France, Romania, Taiwan, and the Czech Republic. In fact, nearly three dozen governments banned or limited exports in March alone. Germany impounded a shipment of masks from China before they could reach their destination in Switzerland.
There’s nothing like national self interest to break those intricate global supply chains.
Even worse, however, is the lack of understanding of how easy it is for countries in that supply chain to undermine our national security. China is the source of the novel coronavirus, as it was for SARS CoV-2 in 2002 and, possibly, the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918.
Despite those outbreaks, they have done nothing to regulate the wet markets where viruses proliferate or to ban the sale and consumption of bats, a disease vector. Depending on China for components of critical medical equipment or offshoring assembly to China is like sourcing critical ICBM components from Russia or having the Taliban assemble our bomb-detection equipment.
Fixing the National Security Problem
Fixing the problem is simple in theory by difficult in practice. It requires a common-sense industrial policy that has national security as a significant component in a country where common sense is increasingly rare. We know this is so because we just lost two opportunities to twist the arm of America’s manufacturers. One was the Tax “Reform” bill of 2019 that cut taxes of American businesses and the other was the $2 trillion stimulus package that just passed.
Each of them could have included mandates to re-industrialize the manufacturing of healthcare equipment like ventilators and critical drugs here in the United States. To put it in crude terms, “You want the money to save your business, here are the terms you have to follow.”
That approach would have the dual advantage of putting control back in the United States and creating jobs for Americans.
A List of Suggestions
There are others. You can find a long list of suggestions in the New York Times article “Why Can’t America Make Enough Masks or Ventilators?” by Scott Paul, who is the president of the Alliance for American Manufacturing. Although Mr. Scott focuses more on the economy than national security, he gets to the heart of the problem and concludes:
“The United States is going to have to weather the coronavirus crisis with a manufacturing sector that isn’t constructed to meet it. We must address that shortcoming before the next crisis arrives, and we should start now. It’s time for a 21st century Arsenal of Democracy: One that will both see us through future crises and revitalize an economy that desperately needs rejuvenation.”
Amen to that. Because we don’t just need an Arsenal of Democracy, we need an Arsenal of Pandemic Response. One that will keep our people healthy, our economy strong and our military in good fighting shape. It’s not just good business.
It’s a matter of national security.