Use of Military Forces in the COVID-19 Emergency

As the effects of COVID-19 are increasingly felt around the United States, many officials and commentators have asked what role the U.S. military might play as part of the response. Several state governors have already called up elements of the National Guard as part of their emergency measures. This analysis addresses the distinctive roles of U.S. federal military forces and state National Guard units, the ways U.S. forces could be most helpful, the limitations on military forces, and the potential cost of employing the military to help fight the coronavirus.

Q1: Can U.S. military forces be used for domestic emergencies?

A1: Yes, U.S. military forces can be used for domestic emergencies and have seen such usage throughout U.S. history. For example, military units fought forest fires in the Western United States when local and forest service capabilities were inadequate. Troops have provided disaster relief, including after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and Hurricane Sandy in 2012. Troops have deployed for many years to the Southwest border. Though that mission has become controversial, the president’s authorities to use troops for this purpose has been upheld in the courts.

When troops are used domestically, the matter of “authorities” becomes paramount. The Posse Comitatus Act, passed in 1878 in response to reconstruction of the South, forbade federal troops from participating in law enforcement. As a result, the federal government has been very reluctant to use active-duty troops in situations where they may interact with citizens. Federal troops can be used domestically under the Insurrection Act of 1807 to suppress lawlessness, insurrection, and rebellion and have been so used in rare situations, for example the Los Angeles riots of 1992. That authority is intentionally narrow and would not seem to allow federal troops to be used in a humanitarian situation like suppressing a pandemic. However, lawyers can be quite imaginative in finding ways to stretch statutory text.

The National Guard, being the successor to the state militias, is not restricted by Posse Comitatus and can, in theory, enforce the law (as can the Coast Guard). Thus, it is the National Guard that is used most commonly in extremis to suppress riots. It could, in theory, enforce quarantines on communities.

However, states are reluctant to use the National Guard in this way because soldiers make bad police officers. Soldiers are heavily armed and taught to regard the population as “threats.” Police officers are lightly armed and trained to protect the citizenry. Using soldiers for law enforcement entails the risk of abuse and misunderstanding. Post-Katrina New Orleans provided a good example of this when General Honore barked at troops to put down their guns. Thus, the National Guard troops on the Southwest border could, in theory, apprehend illegal immigrants but don’t. That is left to the Border Patrol, whose officers have the necessary training.

Instead, the National Guard and federal troops have typically provided support to humanitarian assistance and law enforcement organizations rather than interact directly with the citizenry.

Q2: Is this why the National Guard is being used first?

A2: Yes, because the National Guard comes under the command of the governor in peacetime, governors have discretion about the use of their state’s National Guard. As of this writing, several governors, including those of New York, Maryland, Colorado, and West Virginia, have either called up or announced their intention to call up elements of the National Guard while many other states have small numbers of Guard personnel on duty.

There is also a symbolic element to “calling out the National Guard.” It allows political leaders to show that they are taking action. After 9/11, National Guard troops were sent to the nation’s airports to guard them against further terrorist attacks. Whether this had any practical effect is doubtful, but its visibility reassured many citizens that their government was using all its powers to cope with the emergency. Similarly, the president’s deployment of National Guard troops to the Southwest border has been heavy on symbolism.

Q3: What kinds of military forces would likely be most useful?

A3: Two kinds of military forces would be most useful: medical units and base facilities for quarantine. Medical personnel would be important if the number of infections exceeded what the civilian healthcare system could handle. The military has a large medical establishment. The active-duty establishment cares for active-duty personnel, their families, and retirees (to the extent there is capacity available). It would likely be fully occupied taking care of these populations if the pandemic got worse, so civilians are unlikely to end up at military hospitals like the Naval Hospital in Bethesda.

Most of the wartime medical capability is in the reserves, particularly in the Army Reserve. These medical units could be mobilized and sent to particular hard-hit areas. The problem is that such mobilizations take medical reservists away from their civilian medical activities thus weakening some localities while strengthening others. These mobilizations would need to be targeted so that reserve units came from less affected areas.

The Navy has two hospital ships, the USNS Comfort, homeported in Norfolk, Virginia, and the USNS Mercy, homeported in San Diego, California. These have large capacities, with 1,000 beds and 12 operating rooms each. Kept in reserve during normal times, they deploy periodically for emergencies. For example, they deployed to the Middle East for Operation Desert Storm, Haiti for the humanitarian disaster after the earthquake in 2010, and Puerto Rico in 2017 after the devastation of Hurricane Maria. These hospital ships could deploy to coastal cities that are particularly hard-hit. Being ships, they also make excellent quarantine facilities by separating the sick from the general population.

In addition, the Navy has amphibious ships with large berthing areas and medical facilities, with the large helicopter carriers (LHAs, LHDs) having extensive medical facilities. In an emergency, these could also be pressed into service as quarantine wards.

Military bases have been used to quarantine citizens returning from overseas. Military bases are well-suited for such missions because access can be easily controlled, unlike the civilian sector, which tends to be more porous. Because some civilians may rebel at the restrictions of quarantine—such issues arose with medical personnel returning from Africa after treating Ebola—military facilities may provide an added measure of control.

Military bases have a full spectrum of capabilities already in operation—medical, food, housing, even recreation like gyms—that allow them to transition easily to a quarantine mission.

Troops, particularly the National Guard, might support law enforcement with supplies, communications, and transportation. For reasons described earlier, it is unlikely that troops would be used to physically enforce a quarantine or a curfew in the civilian community unless conditions became much more severe than they are now.

Q4: How much will these additional military activities cost?

A4: The total cost depends, of course, on the scale of the military response. So far, military activities to counter the coronavirus have been limited, but these could grow, and, indeed, are growing as governors activate elements of the National Guard.

Additional costs for active-duty personnel and activities will be modest. The budget already includes compensation for these personnel, and reductions in costs for canceled training and travel would partly offset the additional operational costs for medical, quarantine, or security activities.

Additional costs for National Guard and reserves would be more substantial because the FY 2020 budget funds only part-time work by these forces. Both their full-time compensation and operational costs would need to be added. A very rough rule of thumb would be $150,000 per service member per year for duty within the United States. Getting money for state National Guard activities requires federal approval, but that is unlikely to be a problem in the current situation. The states and the military services will be asking for this money very quickly so that they don’t need to raid other parts of the budget while awaiting money from the federal government.

The military will have additional medical costs for its own population, and these could get wrapped up in the total bill for military needs.

Q5: How would these new activities be paid for?

A5: In this time of emergency, with Congress and the president quickly providing additional resources to respond, finding funds to pay for additional military activities would not be difficult. Congress has already provided $8 billion, though that will go to domestic agencies, not the Department of Defense (DoD). Congress could appropriate “emergency” funds for DoD through a supplemental appropriation for FY 2020. (A supplemental appropriation provides additional money in the current year after Congress has passed the main appropriation.) This could happen as a standalone bill or, more likely, as an element of a government-wide bill. Emergency funds for non-military activities are common. DoD received additional funds to cover its expenses for Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the avian flu outbreak in 2006, the Haitian earthquake in 2010, Hurricane Sandy in 2013, and Ebola in 2015.

Mark F. Cancian (Colonel, USMCR, ret.) is a senior adviser with the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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