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Ten cardinal principles of war that apply to Covid-19 pandemic

The choices we face now are between saving lives from the pandemic and from the economic devastation that will follow it. Both have to be tackled simultaneously.

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The ‘Ten Cardinal Principles of War’, have stood the test of time across ages. With modifications, they can be leveraged in all warlike situations including the battle against Covid-19.

The first and pivotal one is Selection and Maintenance of Aim’. War is always about making tough choices. And these are not options between a right or a wrong. Instead, it is about choosing lesser of the two evils. The choices we face now are between saving lives from the pandemic or from the economic devastation that will follow it. Both have the potential to claim tens of thousands and both have to be tackled simultaneously.

As another example, it is a hard choice between packing millions of migrant workers into trains and buses, thus increasing the spread of the virus — versus the inability to provide food and accommodation at the cities of their work. The essence of this principle is not just selecting an aim, but sustaining it in the face of hardships and pushbacks — because casualties are certain; regardless of which aim is selected. The key is to lose as few as possible.

The second principle is Maintenance of Morale. Superior morale enables smaller armies to defeat larger ones. Maintaining morale requires credible and inspiring leadership by example, at all levels starting from the political hierarchy down to the trenches. A shared sense of purpose and group cohesion has to be established and sustained through the most trying times — which is yet to come. This needs not just truthful communication about decisions, but also the rationale behind those decisions.

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The third principle is Offensive Action. Leaders have to be proactive, anticipate future threats and take bold decisions with minimal information to seize fleeting opportunities. Out of the box thinking, breaching fiscal deficits to provide relief, releasing strategic reserves, co-opting leaders crossing party lines, nationalising resources, and commandeering private sector resources like offices and transportation are some examples.

The fourth principle — Security, implies safeguarding of the frontline troops and their logistic chains. The medical fraternity, police and the personnel providing essential services have maximum exposure to the virus. Their physical security and mental wellbeing have to be of paramount importance. We also need to cater for the disproportionate attrition they will have.

The fifth principle is Surprise. The pandemic itself and the steps taken to fight it will have unexpected consequences. For instance, many key leaders could get infected and be unavailable in the near future. Forceful enforcement of the lockdown may blowback as hungry citizens break the law and begin attacking the police. Terrorist organisations may step up their operations because security forces are choked. Releasing criminals from jail could increase crime. Such scenarios must be anticipated to avoid surprises.

Sixth, Concentration of Force. During the war, scarce resources must be focused. A good example of this principle is the lockdown strategy of some countries which conducted increased testing to identify highly infected clusters, rather than spreading resources thinly over the entire country. Similarly, manufacturing capacity needs to be concentrated to manufacture medical equipment and drugs over the next few months.

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Seventh, Economy of Effort is the judicious employment of resources to achieve maximum effect. Doctors deciding whom to treat and who not, stopping elective surgeries, instructing e-commerce companies to focus on supplying essential items only; are examples of this principle.

The eighth principle Flexibility is to cater for high fluidity in war situations. Leaders must be mentally mobile, adaptable, admit mistakes and reverse suboptimal decisions when the situation changes.

Systems need to become resilient in crashed timeframes. Pressing medical students and paramedics who have not yet graduated to step up to the plate, training civilians on basic triage, converting warehouses, schools, offices and trains into hospitals, opening up licences for drones, creating ham radios networks, developing websites that enable citizens to help each other, are examples of this principle.

The ninth principle Cooperation — demands teamwork in the war. While this seems very obvious, it is one of the most difficult principles to achieve. For instance, while citizens may have clapped enthusiastically for a few minutes to encourage the medical fraternity, the same citizens are evicting them from colonies and ostracising their relatives.

While home delivery services are happily leveraged by the citizens, their personnel are beaten on the roads and treated as pariahs when they enter the building. The load and the risks — both have to be shared equally by all stakeholders in the war. Setting aside turf wars, personal egos, parochialism, and leveraging expertise of leaders and professionals cutting across party lines are other examples of this principle.

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The final principle is Sustainability’. The war-withal cannot be ‘exhausted’ in just the first phase of this battle. There is no telling how long this pandemic or it’s relapse will continue or what challenges will emerge in its aftermath. Expended resources will need to be regenerated. We may have to conduct crash courses for medics, press the NCC into service, set aside food, oil and medical reserves to cater for a second wave. Similarly, part of the police and security forces will have to be conserved to cater for future contingencies.

The famous Prussian war analyst Carl von Clausewitz observed that over three-fourths of the factors influencing war are wrapped in the fog of uncertainty. These ten principles serve as a compass to journey through that fog of war.

The author is former CEO NATGRID and president, Risk & Security Reliance Industries. Views are personal. 

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