Navies are particularly vulnerable, with their ships having large numbers of people in confined spaces for weeks on end. If a cruise ship with its spacious and often lavish suites can foster a major outbreak, then warships with sleeping and messing in very confined spaces can be a nightmare for a captain.
Moreover, if a carrier is in difficulties it can at least find somewhere to dock. Less obvious is what happens to an even more tightly packed missile submarine on a three-month patrol as part of the much-vaunted continuous at-sea deterrence. It may be able to kill 20 million people in 90 minutes but that would not stop COVID-19 rendering it useless. Three weeks ago there were tabloid press reports that the UK’s missile submarine base at Faslane near Glasgow had established an on-site quarantine facility because of suspicious cases, with twelve people self-isolating. But we can be sure that if there ever was a problem on a patrolling missile submarine that would be as closely guarded a secret as you could get.
This all raises the question of just what the world’s military forces are really for, since their role in responding to the biggest single threat to people and the world’s entire economy in many decades has been little more than peripheral.
True, they are being used to some extent, essentially as useful civilian adjuncts. NATO transport aircraft have recently moved urgently needed medical equipment to Romania, a Spanish navy assault ship is being used as a hospital ship, in the UK army units have helped to build emergency hospitals, Italian troops have been moving dead bodies to parts of the country where crematoria can cope and many other countries have called up troops to provide logistical support to civilian agencies in numerous functions.
For now, though, perhaps the most telling aspect of the current crisis is that the two most important ships in the entire US Navy, far more useful than $12 billion aircraft carriers, are the two unarmed and civilian-crewed hospital ships of the navy’s Military Sealift Command, Mercy and Comfort. Built as oil tankers forty years ago at a cost, then, of barely $70 million each, the government bought them and converted them into hospital ships in the late 1980s. Each has beds for a thousand patients and fully equipped operating theatres, pharmacies and bio-medical laboratories: Comfort is currently supporting local hospitals in New York, with Mercy doing the same in Los Angeles.
The COVID-19 crisis still has many months to run; its human and economic effects are likely to stretch over some years. When we do come out of the crisis, we will then be even closer to the critical challenge of the far greater threat – climate breakdown. Just as COVID-19 must make us question the meaning of security and the costly reliance on military spending to make us feel secure, so too must climate breakdown.