Indian Armed Forces had been coping well with Covid-19, until the alarm bells began ringing with a report that 26 sailors of Indian Navy Ship Angre, a shore establishment of Western Naval Command, have tested positive. All militaries of the world have been affected in varying degrees by Covid-19. Given the hybrid nature of modern conflict which encompasses the entire spectrum of conflict, there is no clear distinction between peace and war. In asymmetric conflict, terrorists consider calamities, which divert the focus of nations and their armies, as god gifted opportunities.
INS Angre’s case exemplifies the seriousness of the Covid-19 threat. On 7 April, one sailor was tested positive. All sailors in contact were then quarantined and later tested positive despite remaining asymptomatic. Luckily, so far, this has been an isolated case. All ships in docks or on patrol duty–from the Straits of Malacca in the East to Bab-el-Mandeb, or those taking part in ‘Op Sankalp’ to provide protection to Indian merchant vessels and anti-piracy patrols in the Gulf of Aden–are free from infection.
Indian Army which reported its first case as early as 20 March, so far has had only 9 personnel tested positive, which includes three doctors and one nursing assistant. There has been no effect whatsoever on the ongoing missions in operational areas. In fact, the Army has stepped up its counter-infiltration and counter-terrorist operations to prevent the terrorists from taking advantage of Covid-19. Indian Air Force has so far not reported any Covid-19 positive case.
Disease as the third enemy
Since times immemorial diseases and war have been ‘deadly comrades’. History shows us that more soldiers die of disease than battle wounds. During the Napoleonic wars, the number of British army soldiers who died of diseases were eight times more than the number of those who died fighting.
In the American Civil War, two-thirds of the estimated 660,000 deaths of soldiers were caused by pneumonia, typhoid, dysentery, and malaria. Closer home, in the initial stages of the campaign in Burma (1942-1945) the ratio of evacuation of casualties from the battle zone due to the diseases (malaria, dysentery, and typhus) and battle wounds was 120:1 ( Page 177, Defeat Into Victory by Field Marshal William Slim). Colloquially, in military parlance, diseases are known as the “third army” in a war.
The nature of military organisations, their habitat, training and modus operandi, both during peace and war makes them extremely vulnerable to contagious infections. Being instruments of last resort for national security, disease prevention for force preservation and effectiveness is extremely important for the military. Armed forces maintain very high standards of hygiene and sanitation and are supported by an excellent medicare infrastructure and personnel.
Covid infecting armies
Covid-19 is posing a unique challenge for militaries all over the world. In absence of a preventive vaccine the reliance is on disease prevention through strict quarantine of military establishments, isolation of positive cases and contact tracing/testing. All these measures have serious limitations. Asymptomatic nature of the disease in younger soldiers creates additional problems. Despite these odds the military has to persevere in order to pursue its assigned mission of combatting internal and external threats. In addition, the military has to assist the civil authorities in fighting the disease.
Conflict hardly ever pauses due to epidemics and natural disasters. In October 2005, the 7.5 richter earthquake with epicentre around Muzaffarabad, caused severe damage in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (PoK), including to the defences of the Pakistan Army along the Line of Control. Pakistan rushed its army reserves from the hinterland to PoK. However, much to our amusement, their first priority was not to provide relief to the beleaguered population but to reinforce the defences lest the Indian Army takes advantage of the situation.
Despite the world grappling with the deadly coronavirus and in need of all its resources to tide over the crisis there is little support at the United Nations for the “global ceasefire” proposed by the French President Emmanuel Macron.
Hence, most armies around the world are secretive about the effect of Covid-19 on their forces. Despite the People’s Liberation Army having played a major role in the management of Covid-19 at its epicentre, Wuhan, China brazenly announced that none of its soldiers had tested positive.
US military by far is the worst affected having reported 3,438 positive cases. Between 100-200 new cases are being diagnosed on a daily basis. 22 deaths have also been reported. The most visible presence of US power projection, the US Navy, tops the list with 1,240 cases, followed by the US Army with 890 cases, US Air Force with 330 cases and the Marine Corps with 250 cases.
Three aircraft carriers – USS Theodore Roosevelt, USS Ronald Reagan and USS Nimitz – have been infected in varying numbers considerably impacting their combat effectiveness and are presently docked at various ports. Another aircraft carrier USS Carl Wilson in dry docks has also reported infections. With USS Abraham Lincoln completing a long operational deployment, for the first time in history, there is no aircraft carrier deployed in the Western and North Pacific. By contrast the PLA is having a free run in the South China Sea and North Pacific.
In a major embarrassment to France, its Flagship aircraft carrier, Charles De Gaulle, was rendered ineffective with 1,046 out of 1,760 sailors infected with Covid-19 and scurried to its home base at Toulon.
So far so good for Indian forces
Based on the information available in the public domain, our armed forces have done exceptionally well in ensuring force preservation without impinging on the ongoing operational missions and tasks in aid of civil authorities to fight Covid-19. However, it is a long haul and the real challenges lie ahead. The lockdown has only provided a pause and the threat of community transmission looms large. The armed forces have to be prepared for large-scale deployment to fight the epidemic.
We should not let our guard down and in the short term continue to enforce virtual “cocooning”. This must be backed by aggressive testing, including anti-body testing. In the long run, with a young and fit profile , which remains asymptomatic or with mild infection, it is likely that the armed forces as a whole, will develop herd immunity much earlier than national herd immunity which comes after 50-60 % of the population gets infected.
Lt Gen H S Panag PVSM, AVSM (R) served in the Indian Army for 40 years. He was GOC in C Northern Command and Central Command. Post retirement, he was Member of Armed Forces Tribunal. Views are personal.