COVID-19 And Armed Forces

Armed forces across the world are being forced to confront an insidious and deadly enemy— the COVID-19 virus. Closer home in India, a number of corona virus positive cases have started to emerge across Armed forces.

Vulnerabilities of Indian Armed Forces

The Army has been involved in quarantining operations which have exposed some of its personnel to the virus. Physical distancing is not easy in military as Armed forces personnel live in communities —barracks, eat in messes or train and operate in groups, especially in field deployments, like along the Line of Control, where living accommodation may be in bunkers.

Current Preparedness Level of Armed Forces

  • Theoretically armies are expected to be able to fight through a nuclear, chemical and biological weapons attack. Army has equipments like tanks, infantry combat vehicles and helicopters which can operate in a Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear (CBRN) environment.
  • The Director-General Perspective Planning has a section dealing with issues related to it.
  • The Air Force and the Navy have cells dealing with the coping with CBRN issues i.e. operating through CBRN environment — protecting personnel, decontaminating equipment and so on.
  • All three Services carry out periodic exercises to test their response.

Challenges in Dealing with Biowarfare

  • Limited Focus: Off-late armed force’s focus has been mainly on chemical weapons, which have featured in recent wars. Bio-weapons are still something of out of science fiction, given the difficulty in trying to ensure that – they only strike at the enemy and there is no blowback on those using them.
  • Inadequate Preparedness: Militaries around the world including Indian forces are not quite prepared for dealing with biohazards. For instance, DRDO’s Defence Research and Development Establishment (DRDE) lab in Gwalior mainly focused on studies relating to toxicology, dealing with bacterial and viral agents, anthrax and so on, developing medicine kits and clothing for CBRN environments such as decontamination systems, shelters and vehicles.
  • Limited Functionality: Although an NBC (Nuclear Biological and Chemical) suit was developed some years back and 50,000 suits and socks were supplied to the Army but the suit is optimised for chemical agents, not viruses.

Way Forward

  • Digitisation: Focus on digitisation, as it is invaluable in ensuring social distancing in hazardous situations such as the one, we are undergoing now. Meetings, training courses, education can all be conducted through the digital medium till the threat wanes.
  • Logistical Support: Cater for supply chain disruptions which may arise from a pandemic, as is happening in the case of COVID-19 where railroads, airlines and even road traffic have been blocked off.
  • Mechanisation: Focus on mechanisation to help reduce manpower and hence the impact of pandemics. Of course, a balance has to be struck, on one hand a bio-threat like COVID-19 could call for greater automation and mechanisation, but on the other there are cyber and Electronic warfare threats that electronic equipment and systems of automation are vulnerable to.
  • Decentralisation: Decentralise training and operations to ensure that the impact of the pandemic can be reduced to manageable hotspots, instead of impacting large chunks of the force. The key message here is the need for smaller units and redundant structures to spread risks.