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Military experts: We need to fight coronavirus like we fight insurgents on the battlefield

(In collaboration with Thomas Hendrix, as featured in Fortune Magazine)

While tracking the expansion of COVID-19 has become our new national obsession, metrics like caseloads and medical supply requirements have proved ineffective in helping us understand the disease’s spread across the country. As we assess the effectiveness of our collective response efforts, it may make practical sense to focus less on rising case counts in favor of a functional theory of success, which allows us to take proactive measures as we navigate through the uncertainty of the next few months. 

Defining an actionable theory of success is critical during times of uncertainty, enabling us to effectively make sense of dynamic conditions and more clearly visualize a path forward without being distracted by flawed measures of effectiveness. During the Vietnam War, American efforts suffered from fixation on easy to compile, but ultimately misleading, metrics like enemy casualties. This dangerously diverted attention away from whether real progress was being made toward strategic goals.

Over the past several weeks, our team at Decisive Point, a venture advisory firm focused on defense and national security, have focused all our efforts on helping New York confront the coronavirus crisis. Working closely with New York City officials, we’ve aimed to identify and resolve points of friction rather than focus on material solutions. 

Our experience navigating this fractured and chaotic landscape has exposed the many bureaucratic barriers to effective coordination, further complicated by unscrupulous opportunists crowding an already overburdened supply chain and the limitations of capacity in our current health care system. The conditions on the ground bear striking similarities to our collective military experience conducting unconventional warfare and counterinsurgency operations in places like Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria. In response, we’ve largely operated as decentralized teams, empowered with the resources needed to fight through complexity and solve problems.

The intent of this analysis is not to suggest that there is a military precedent which could solve this complex problem set; rather, that there is value in considering a framework specifically designed to help us better understand asymmetric threats to society. Our hope is that these observations enable others to see the challenge more clearly as they guide their communities or organizations through this crucible.

In the decades since 9/11, America has been continuously engaged in a series of low-intensity conflicts and counterinsurgency campaigns. As the spread of COVID-19 accelerated, leaders like retired Gen. Stanley McCrystal quickly identified parallels between battling a pandemic and his experience leading America’s elite Joint Special Operations Command during the war in Iraq. Similarly, here in New York, we’ve observed that the spread of COVID-19 follows a pattern similar to the phases of insurgency as outlined by the U.S. Army’s counterinsurgency doctrine (COIN).

In phase one, the enemy remains hidden, presenting only a potential threat and expanding its power and influence through acts of subversion and disruption. Plans for a coordinated, immediate response may be delayed owing to an inherent reluctance to disrupt daily life, resulting in inaction and allowing the insurgency to expand unchecked.

COVID-19 also assumes a low profile as the virus penetrates deep into population centers, remaining outside our awareness for up to 14 days when individuals are asymptomatic. The early lack of testing measures amplified the outbreak’s spread, made worse by the late adoption of widespread isolation and social distancing measures. 

During this period, the lack of obvious external evidence of pandemic spread led some to wonder if we were overreacting. Since the U.S. was slow to roll out widespread testing efforts, we conflated absence of proof with proof of absence at the cost of allowing COVID-19 the time needed to become a national crisis.

In phase two, the enemy strengthens its grip on the population with each operational act and continues to expand its influence, driving government forces to assume a defensive footing. Government leaders scramble to deploy resources broadly without a clearly identified crisis point or symmetrical front line. This makes it extremely difficult to effectively coordinate a response, making initial efforts resource-intensive, appearing at times to be disorganized and incoherent.

We see this in America’s current siege posture, attempting to check COVID-19’s spread by shifting to tools like quarantine. Communities in this phase have begun to experience the challenge of allocating critical resources to mitigate patient surges. Mounting patient loads create an unsustainable crisis for health care systems. At this stage, the need to deploy critical medical resources like ventilators has become an emergency, yet there is no single location where the crisis can be resolved by a focused effort. The best way to operate at speed in this environment is placing a premium on interagency cooperation, flattened communications structures, and expanding resource-sharing efforts.

Once the enemy has the mass and structure needed to sustain operations, phase three begins. The enemy conducts both offensive and defensive operations, enabling it to hold terrain and overtake unconsolidated areas of resistance. This risks destroying the government’s legitimacy, as insurgents multiply their support among the population, and the basic needs of the people overwhelm the government’s capabilities to both respond and govern. As the government becomes overextended, it loses control and territory.

In New York City, COVID-19 has reached this stage, with infection holding large amounts of terrain and disrupting regular daily operations. While government response at this point is highly focused, the affliction has penetrated so deeply into the population that institutional capabilities for response are overextended, making progress in repelling the attack extremely difficult. Communities at this stage are confronting a full-blown crisis, medical teams are overburdened, and institutional leaders are left with few good options. In this environment, the primary focus is on pushing as many relevant and critical supplies as possible into the area while reducing the operational burden of ineffective or impractical solutions.

Armed with these observations, we turned to retired Lt. Gen. Michael Nagata for his thoughts on how to translate our experiences in New York into actionable recommendations for other communities currently in the virus’s crosshairs. With his decades of Special Operations experience planning or executing counterterrorism and counterinsurgency strategy, he emphasized the need to establish truly strategic goals when confronted with complex problems, and then ruthlessly marshaling all efforts toward those goals. In his opinion, one of the most powerful counterinsurgency concepts that pandemic responders must consider is the need for a “repeatable, consistent theory of success that we can align resources against.”

Nagata also highlighted the applicability of a lesson that the U.S. military had to learn in Iraq and Afghanistan: that successful counterinsurgency prioritizes protecting the population over the important, but secondary, need to combat the insurgent. Accordingly, in combating today’s pandemic, our focus should strategically prioritize “protecting the population first and foremost, with efforts to combat the disease itself, while crucial and necessary—particularly in light of the current absence of an effective vaccine—as a secondary goal.”

Absent this conceptual framework, response efforts risk floundering and wasting resources owing to insufficient focus. The difficulty of defining success against complex and amorphous threats, like insurgencies and pandemics, often causes leaders to rely on proxy metrics like enemy casualties or medical supply deliveries. Despite these challenges, developing a consistent theory of success is critical for navigating through uncertainty and generating unity of effort. Further, consistent messaging and execution can help instill confidence in our response efforts among the American people.

While our collective military experience does not equate to the expertise needed to develop a pandemic-appropriate theory of success, perhaps we can help identify its requisite elements. Based on our experience in support of response efforts in New York, the theory of success for this pandemic must be designed around the concept of protecting the population, emphasizing communication, integration, and sustainability. 

Since each town, city, and state across the country will encounter a unique set of challenges, Nagata offered the following assessment based around three primary questions, which might help us all see the problem more clearly and ensure that we are collectively predisposed to take action:

First, “how is information being shared in such a way that it strengthens our ability to protect the population?” This definition must extend to “medical assistance, contamination, [and] CDC announcements to break down silos of communication and build a robust information-sharing regime.”

Second, “what must be done to foster stronger integration, not just among and between government organizations, civil society, and the medical community, but [across] all of these sectors regardless of type, so that activities that are occurring in government offices span the divide into the civilian sector and vice versa?” This domain seeks to find and share best practices at speed, creating interlocking feedback loops that accelerate response efforts.

Third, “what routine, repeatable actions must be implemented to foster information sharing and integration to the maximum extent possible?” This seeks to build predictable touch points among key actors to facilitate the creation of a common operational picture of the situation, eliminating barriers for coordinating and enhancing collective situational awareness. In the military we refer to this as our battle rhythm, the consistent events leaders use to execute fundamental organizational responsibilities.

A cohesive national theory of success effectively aligns a community or organization’s approach with the primary objective of our collective response—protecting the population. The more direct and actionable the definition, the more it allows leaders to benchmark where they should apply scarce resources in a given area. As we observe the state of the virus’s spread in our neighborhood, town, or city, this framework could potentially help guide and assess the effectiveness of policies and personal actions. 

Given the continued trajectory of confirmed COVID-19 cases, we must consistently assess the efficacy and performance of current strategies. While it will take time to develop the appropriate theory of success, and the appropriate structure capable of leading our communities through this crisis, victory depends on establishing clarity of vision and unity of effort. 

In unconventional warfare, building trust across communities and organizations is key. Likewise, in the coming weeks our ability to build additional capacity and overcome this pandemic will rely on our ability to emphasize the human element. Let us remember that our frontline soldiers in this fight are our medical personnel, and that our efforts must be designed to support them and their families.

We all have a role to play in this fight. While the majority of Americans are not directly engaged in combating COVID-19 in our hospitals, we all have a responsibility to protect our communities. COVID-19 will demand every ounce of strength that our medical personnel have to give. While there is a real need for material support, we must not forget about the importance of securing the population first, remembering the proverbial Special Operations Forces truth that in any counterinsurgency, humans are more important than hardware.

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