*Note: This essay first appeared at Foreign Policy on May 26, 2016, and then ran with the Chicago Tribune on May 27, 2016. (PDF available here.)

Ever since the Bible lumped pestilence and war together as two of the Apocalypse’s four horsemen, the military has fought disease. Zika, with over 1,000 confirmed cases and one death on American soil, is the latest in a long line of pandemics: Ebola. MERS. H5N1. SARS. Americans expect and deserve a more efficient and effective military defense from such threats — better, at least, than what the active duty military provided during the 2014 Ebola crisis. The response then turned out to be both poorly executed and too late. Now facing Zika, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says he’s interested in “newer tools.” Luckily we have a readymade bullpen of military first-responders: the National Guard.

As we approach the 100th anniversary of the Spanish Flu, which infected half a billion and killed nearly 100 million — more than all the wars of the 20th century combined — it’s important to reflect on the magnitude of the threat. While that pandemic gained speed as it spread through the air, today the “airborne” threat is different. Modern, inexpensive, long distance air travel ensures that once such a disease reaches a sufficiently sizable city, like Lagos or London, it will have multiple flights, daily, to destinations like Detroit or Dallas. Pathogens are often equipped with natural stealth. As one journalist wrote, “you’re fighting an enemy that you can’t see, you can’t hear, and you don’t know if it’s attacked you until it’s often too late.” Pandemics can create unwitting, passive “bombers,” the deepest of sleeper agents, and so there is no such thing as a perfect defense.

Which makes it increasingly likely that today’s pandemics, while originating overseas, will ultimately land on American shores. This differentiates the nature of pandemics from traditional military threats. While we can be certain Putin will not invade California, we ought to expect every pandemic will invade Connecticut. And if all significant pandemics can infiltrate into and spread across the homeland, then this is a job for the National Guard.

After all, the National Guard is well stocked with forces prepared for pandemic response. After September 11, America invested heavily in this capability, and has developed 10 Homeland Response Force units with 566 soldiers each, 17 chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear and high yield explosive (CBRNE) Enhanced Response Force Package (CERFP) units, and 57 civil support teams dotting the entire United States. These comprise top notch military first responder organizations that are robust and ready.

We just don’t seem to know how to use them. In 2014, when the Ebola crisis struck, the US instead chose to deploy an active duty military headquarters (U.S. Army Africa), an organization traditionally focused on developing African militaries. This geographical choice left our trained, functional-specific National Guard first responders at home to practice their skills in carefully controlled conditions like fake riots in California, dummy triage in Ohio, and construction management in New York. This was a wasted opportunity.

If these National Guard first responder units are designed to protect the homeland, they need to train critical skills by deploying to contingencies like 2014’s Ebola crisis or this year’s Zika scare. Both the director of the CDC and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff have agreed the best way to protect America against such threats is to defend forward — at the source. By doing so, our National Guard first responders will be better prepared to protect the American people, and, just as U.S. Army doctors train domestically on gunshot wounds in Chicago to improve their future performance in international combat, we ought to send our top National Guard first responders overseas to develop skills that will save American lives down the line.

What would National Guard first responders do onsite at an overseas pandemic? As the military component of a larger American government response, they’d deploy to the growing pandemic’s center mass. With such a diversity of diseases, each response will be unique; the National Guard force would be tailored to fit the mission. One consistent feature: the mission would be three-fold — humanitarian, reconnaissance, and training. The National Guard response would act as a “scout” element to better understand the threat upstream (overseas), which should make defenses more effective downstream (at home). Equally important, global pandemic events provide real-life experiences akin to “live fire” exercises (i.e. training events with real ammunition) for these military first responders, so they’re truly ready in a way the low-pressure stakes that accompany dummies and fake blood never could afford. Also, organizationally, over time, the National Guard would learn and adapt through consistent focus on this dangerous national security threat.

Functional threats like nuclear weapons, cyber hacks, and nihilist terrorists recognize no borders, and so the military organizes them under functional commands like Strategic Command, Cyber Command, and Special Operations Command. It’s time for the military to recognize the same when it comes to pandemic response: To fight diseases like Zika, send in the National Guard.

ML Cavanaugh is a U.S. Army Strategist, a nonresident fellow with the Modern War Institute at West Point, and has served in assignments from Iraq to the Pentagon, and South Korea to New Zealand. A contributor at War on the Rocks, he looks forward to connecting via Twitter: @MLCavanaugh. This essay is an unofficial expression of opinion; the views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of West Point, the Department of the Army, the Department of Defense, or any agency of the U.S. government.


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