Canadian and Global Military Responses to the COVID-19 Pandemic

3 June 2020, 11:15 a.m.

(Disponible en français : Interventions militaires canadiennes et étrangères en réponse à la pandémie de COVID-19)

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, governments in Canada and other countries have mobilized and deployed their military to assist civilian authorities. Each country has used its military resources differently.

To date, the military in Canada has responded to local requests for assistance in addressing the pandemic, such as supporting long-term care facilities, deploying the Canadian Rangers in Northern communities and providing logistics support. The Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) stands ready to mobilize some 24,000 personnel – including reservists – under Operation LASER.

This HillNote outlines the basis for the Canadian military’s assistance to civilian authorities in emergency situations. It then provides an overview of ways in which Canada’s military, and those in allied and like-minded countries, are assisting those authorities in dealing with the pandemic.   

Basis for Assistance

Canada is among the countries that has legislation allowing the government to mobilize and deploy its military to support civilian authorities responding to a domestic emergency.

For example, through Operation LENTUS, the CAF regularly assists civilian authorities during floods, forest fires, ice storms and other natural disasters. Under Canada’s National Defence Act and related regulations, and at the request of civilian authorities, the CAF can also provide “aid to the civil powers” in the event of riots or disturbances.

Forms of Assistance

The armed forces have capabilities that few civilian organizations possess, and they can be useful in national emergencies.

During the pandemic, militaries are providing support in areas such as:

  • internal security and law enforcement;
  • medical and public health;
  • logistics; and
  • humanitarian assistance.

Internal Security and Law Enforcement

Military personnel in several countries – including Italy and Spain – are helping civilian law enforcement authorities to maintain law and order, thereby enabling police officers to perform other duties in their communities. They are patrolling streets, enforcing lockdowns and quarantines, assisting police at roadside checkpoints, protecting critical infrastructure and performing other internal security tasks.

The use of the military to control populations differs across countries. Some, such as France, Germany and the United Kingdom, have not used armed military personnel to maintain law and order. However, in Africa, Asia and Latin America, the enforcement of COVID-19–related emergency measures by certain militaries has resulted in public confrontations and has raised human rights concerns.

To date, many countries have not used their military for “policing.” However, some commentators believe that armed forces could be asked to undertake law enforcement activities if a police force has a high rate of COVID-19–related illnesses.

Medical and Public Health

As with other recent pandemics, civil–military cooperation has been renewed in researching biological threats and developing countermeasures such as vaccines, therapeutics, medical equipment and decontamination. These efforts largely occur through national defence research agencies, such as Defence Research and Development Canada.

Additionally, defence intelligence organizations in some countries – including Canada and the United States – have specialized medical intelligence capabilities to monitor and model biological threats, and to provide early warning of pandemics.

At early stages of the pandemic, the armed forces in various countries assisted with control and containment measures. For instance, they provided military facilities for civilian quarantine, contributed personnel for contact tracing and for clinical and epidemiological support to civilian public health authorities, and assisted with the medical evacuation of citizens located overseas.

During the mitigation phase, militaries have deployed personnel, field hospitals or hospital ships to support civilian healthcare systems. They have also released emergency stocks of medical supplies and equipment for civilian use, provided medically trained staff to assist isolated or vulnerable populations, and transported the deceased to cremation facilities or burial sites.

Logistics

Several countries – including France [in French only], the United Kingdom and the United States – have been using their military’s sophisticated logistical systems and transportation assets to  transport personnel, and to distribute and deliver food, medical supplies and other vital equipment. Their land, air and sea assets have also evacuated people and transported COVID-19 patients to hospitals.

In addition, military personnel have been managing warehouse operations supporting the distribution of critical supplies. In several countries, military bases and other infrastructure have been used for logistical purposes.

Humanitarian Assistance

Consistent with countries’ routine deployment of their military to provide domestic and international humanitarian assistance during a crisis, humanitarian responses to the pandemic include supplying sanitation tools and clean water, and maintaining humanitarian support for other ongoing crises.

Canada, the United States and several European countries have deployed their military domestically to provide humanitarian assistance and to support citizens who are members of a vulnerable group, such as those in long-term care homes. Additionally, in some U.S. states, the National Guard is assisting food banks and delivering humanitarian supplies.

The military from various countries have provided support in past pandemics such as Ebola in West Africa. Given the international nature of the COVID-19 pandemic, some North Atlantic Treaty Organization member states have been using their military’s specialized capabilities to provide humanitarian assistance abroad. For example, the United Kingdom’s Operation Broadshare is delivering medical supplies to some British Overseas Territories.

Other Roles

In the past two decades, defence organizations have organized national and international tabletop exercises designed to improve emergency preparedness and response, as well as civil–military coordination concerning biological threats. These threats include pandemics from coronaviruses.

As well, some militaries can detect and respond to chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) threats through specialized units trained to operate in contaminated environments. For example, CBRN units in Spain and the United States have been deployed to disinfect critical infrastructure during the pandemic and to provide civilian first responders with training about the use of personal protective equipment.

Also, due to the threat posed by the unconventional methods used in hybrid warfare, military and national security organizations have identified and/or countered disinformation during the pandemic, which may influence domestic and international public opinion via social media.

Conclusion

The current securitization of the pandemic response – often called “The War on COVID-19” – and the mobilization of militaries worldwide raise questions about the roles that the armed forces can and should play during pandemics.

The tasks undertaken by armed forces during the COVID-19 and other pandemics largely depend on the preparedness and capacities of both civilian and military organizations, as well as a country’s civil–military relations.

While the military may perform various roles during a pandemic, maintaining combat readiness and fulfilling core missions remains its top priority. Armed forces sometimes perceive Military Operations Other Than War, including responses to public health crises, as an additional function that strains their resources, requires trade-offs and detracts from core missions, such as defending the country or allies.

While responding to the COVID-19 pandemic, military personnel in Canada and other countries have been infected by the virus. Despite the risks and impacts on readiness, many countries will continue to mobilize and deploy their armed forces during this pandemic to assist civilian authorities, as required.

Additional Resources

Armies are Mobilizing Against Coronavirus,” The Economist, 23 March 2020.

Euan Graham, The Armed Forces and COVID-19, International Institute for Strategic Studies [IISS], 8 April 2020.

Kathleen H. Hicks and Joseph Federici, Regaining Lost Ground: Defense Support in the Coronavirus Pandemic, Centre for Strategic and International Studies, 20 March 2020.

Tomas Jermalavicius, Military Mind and the Pandemic, International Centre for Defence and Security, 25 March 2020.

Adam McDonald and Carter Vance,  COVID-19 & the Canadian Armed Forces: Overview, Analysis, and Next Steps, Conference of Defence Associations Institute, April 2020.

Alexey D. Muraviev, “In the War Against Coronavirus, We Need the Military to Play a Much Bigger Role,” The Conversation, 24 March 2020.

Christopher Penney, The Incremental Cost of Employing 10,000 Reservists as Part of CAF Readiness Efforts in Response to COVID-19, Office of the Parliamentary Budget Officer, 28 April 2020.

Erica Pepe and Amanda Lapo, Europe’s Armed Forces and the Fight Against COVID-19, IISS, 9 April 2020.

James Stavridis, “Battling a Pandemic is a Job for the Military,” Bloomberg, 29 January 2020.

Denis Thompson, The Canadian Armed Forces’ Response to COVID-19, Canadian Global Affairs Institute, April 2020.

Denis Thompson, “Canadian Armed Forces respond to COVID-19,” The Hill Times, 25 May 2020.

Christopher Watterson and Adam Kamradt-Scott, “Fighting Flu: Securitization and the Military Role in Combating Influenza,” Armed Forces and Society, Vol. 42, No. 1, 2016.

Authors: Martin Auger, Marie Dumont and Christina Yeung, Library of Parliament