With the National Guard now active in 22 states and governors continuing to declare more severe emergency measures daily, the U.S. military is preparing forces to assume a larger role in the coronavirus response, including the controversial mission of quelling “civil disturbances” and enforcing the law, a mission that the military has not engaged in for almost 30 years.
Within military circles, opinion is split over whether federal forces should muscle their way in to do more. State governors and their respective National Guard units, not the federal government and the active duty military, are primarily responsible for handling domestic emergencies: that’s the law and it’s also common sense, since local officials are always closer to a crisis and generally more familiar with the people affected.
The civil disturbance mission requires a deft hand that men and women who have been in battle might not have, and some question whether soldiers are trained or appropriate. The Pentagon contingency plan for dealing with civil disturbances also does not anticipate any scenario like coronavirus, where widespread deployment would thrust more responsibility into the hands of low-level commanders on the scene. There, military insiders say, the policies governing when federal troops can intervene and when they can use force are skewed towards absolutes more appropriate for a foreign battlefield.
Acknowledging that the most difficult question ahead is what role the military will play in keeping order in America, on Thursday Air Force Gen. Joseph Lengyel, head of the National Guard Bureau, cautioned against federalizing the state-based National Guard, which would rob them of their unique legal authorities to conduct law enforcement missions.Ads by scrollerads.com
Though Lengyel says there have been no requests yet to use the National Guard for law enforcement, he made an argument that the states keep “decisions at their level,” out of federal hands, touting the 450,000 strong National Guard as “ready when their governors call.”
But planners involved at the Pentagon and U.S. Northern Command, while admitting that the National Guard is the best choice if there is a public breakdown, also say that the Guard may not be able to be relied upon, not just because of the scope of need, but also because it is a citizen force spread out across America and thus as susceptible as the rest of the general population to contracting the virus.Exclusive: Inside the Military’s Secret Plans If Coronavirus Cripples D.C.READ MORE
A senior military planner working on coronavirus but not authorized to speak on sensitive planning matters says that deployment of federal troops in support roles is being prepared. This week, the Pentagon allocated two Navy hospital ships to coronavirus duty, one in New York and the other in California. Other logistics and engineering missions are also being prepared, those support missions partially intended to free up National Guard troops so that they can conduct law enforcement if necessary, with the active duty forces operating in the background.