The top House Democrat says the Pentagon needs to “get creative” in its response to the coronavirus pandemic. In particular, Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., wonders whether the military could use its diverse set of contractors to make desperately needed COVID-19 test swabs, protective masks and other equipment.
Smith, who leads the House Armed Services Committee, said Tuesday that the military should respond to the novel coronavirus as it does when quickly developing new technology or weapons for unexpected situations on the battlefield.
“I would love to use that logistical, innovative problem-solving approach that DoD uses to this problem,” Smith said. “We’re talking about a disease and theoretically, that’s more CDC and FEMA, but the scale that we’re dealing with here is something that DoD, I think, could be could be a big partner in that.”
Smith pointed to the military’s rapid acquisition of tens of thousands of armored MRAP trucks in 2007 to better protect troops in Iraq from roadside bombs.
“We don’t need to mass-produce an MRAP or a tank or an aircraft carrier; we need to mass-produce a cotton swab. We ought to be able to figure that out,” Smith said. “I would love to find ways to use existing structures within DoD to take a leadership role in that.”
Smith said the military could help jumpstart production of other urgently needed supplies as well. He also said he’s exploring ways of legislating — through the under-construction 2021 National Defense Authorization Act — ways the military could do more in its coronavirus response.
“DoD shouldn’t necessarily be producing this stuff for every civilian to use,” Smith said. “But if they took the lead on producing it — [so] that the DoD has what they needed — that could also spur” commercial “development later on.”
In recent weeks, the Air Force has flown 3.5 million test swabs to the United States from Italy, where they are manufactured.
Smith acknowledged that the Defense Department and National Guard “are doing quite a bit.” Nearly 27,000 National Guardsman are supporting individual states, the Army Corps of Engineers are setting up field hospitals in hard-hit regions, Navy hospital ships are docked in New York and Los Angeles and scientists are working on a coronavirus vaccine.
But he said the military is “in a position to do a lot more than they’re doing.” The Pentagon should be more “forward-leaning” in its approach, he said.
“I don’t think the DoD is being used in these ways in the way that they should be to meet this crisis,” he said.
Smith said he has urged defense leaders to “get creative” in ways they could help.
“They make all manner of different things for all manner of different problems,” Smith said. They can look at it, [and say] OK, well, we’re making this for that. But you know, we need a bunch of swabs. Here’s the way we can make a bunch of swabs or we need a bunch of masks. Here’s a way we could do that.
“DoD has not been forward-leaning on that issue — they just haven’t,” Smith said. “As near as I can tell, that’s because that’s the way the president wants it.”
Frank Kendall, who was undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics during the Obama administration, said a senior military officer be put in charge of the military’s coronavirus response — similar to the way the Pentagon coordinates response to a natural disaster.
“This leader needs to be forceful, smart and decisive and he or she needs as relevant a background to the task at hand as possible,” Kendall wrote in Forbes. “The Commanding Generals of U.S. Transportation Command or Northern Command are a possibility. So is the Commander of the Defense Logistics Agency, who would need to be elevated from three to four-star rank.”
A senior military commander improved the response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, he said. The officer put in charge of the military’s coronavirus response should report directly to President Donald Trump or Vice President Mike Pence, Kendall said.
“The commander should be given whatever authority he or she needs to be successful,” he wrote. “This would include delegated Defense Production Act Authorities, broad contracting authority, dedicated financial resources, and staff as needed. Our commander should be given broad directive authority over all other parts of the government to execute his or her mission.”
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