When I last visited London’s Excel conference centre it was for an international arms fair, where defence enthusiasts browsed autonomous combat vehicles and queued to sit in a gleaming fighter jet. Now hastily refitted as a field hospital for Covid-19 patients, the Excel looks quite different: rows of identical beds and ventilators fill the hangar-like space.
The display of defence machinery now seems absurd. The biggest threat to western nations since the second world war has not been an army but a pandemic that has killed more than 250,000 people across the globe. Political leaders talk of waging a war against the virus; faced with this adversary, the idea of human combat seems wasteful. For the military, the pandemic poses an uncomfortable question: what is the role of the defence establishment when national security is no longer about troop numbers and aircraft carriers, but personal protective equipment supply chains and testing capacity?
In the short term, defence personnel are taken aback by their marginal role. General Nick Carter, head of Britain’s armed forces, has urged his troops to move gracefully from star billing to supporting actor status. “We are, for once in our lives, not on the front line,” he said last month. “Humility is the watchword in the way that we help and respond and support others.” In the UK, a “Covid support force” is helping with National Health Service logistics, driving ambulances, manning emergency call centres and setting up mobile testing centres. The US Navy has mobilised two hospital ships to treat civilians and all 50 states have activated the National Guard. Italy used the army to enforce lockdown.
The day-to-day business of defence is largely on hold. Joint military exercises — such as the Defender 2020 exercise for US and European troops — are scaled back or cancelled. Armed forces on overseas deployments have reduced activities, and training is being deferred. Even Russian President Vladimir Putin reluctantly cancelled this week’s planned 75th anniversary Victory Day military parade — the infection risk was too high. The UN Security Council is calling for a global ceasefire to protect conflict zones threatened by the virus.
Once the immediate crisis is over, Beatrice Heuser, a war expert at the University of Glasgow, predicts swingeing cuts to defence budgets, hitting procurement and recruitment. It is hard to see why governments recovering from economic shock would prioritise defence spending over health and social care. Prof Heuser believes the crisis will strengthen isolationist voices in the US and UK, with critics asking why taxpayers money should fund overseas operations and international aid when resources are stretched.
The role of defence will also change. “Resilience” is the word of the moment, a military outlook based on strengthening civilian infrastructure to better withstand pandemics, the effects of climate change or cyber attack. Having felt the chill of their proximity to Russia, Nordic countries such as Finland and Sweden have traditionally been much better at this. They involve the public in disaster preparedness and advise them how to survive for short periods without electricity, water or plentiful food. Security is a collective national effort, rather than the preserve of a remote military establishment.
Defence chiefs argue that during a global crisis, international defence alliances provide stability. A senior officer told me last week that the forces would lean back into peacekeeping, provide disaster response, and help quell conflicts over resources or mass migration. His argument for continued spending is that shocks such as coronavirus make the world less safe. Crucial capabilities — such as missile defence — must not be allowed to wither, he says.
Even so, the era of extravagant military purchases is surely over. Governments around the world racked up $1.9tn in defence spending last year, the highest figure in more than three decades, according to analysis by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. Whether London’s Excel centre will have converted back to a conference venue in time for the next arms fair, planned for 2021, is not clear. But we know that delegates’ pockets will no longer be so deep.
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