The Indian armed forces have been called upon to combat terrorists, violent ideologies and natural disasters. In rare instances, they have been ordered to enforce law and order in riot situations. However, they have not dealt with pandemics.

The coronavirus disease (Covid-19) currently poses a threat which, affecting the entire spectrum of society and State, can be classified in terms of its first-and-second-order impact.

The first order or direct impact is on the patient affected by the virus in terms of illness, possible death and the risk of infecting others. Medical services and related infrastructure are also directly impacted. The second-order impact is manifold and on infrastructure and services such as communications, law and order, and finances. These can be managed and controlled through various departments of the government. The questions that then arise are the following: Should the armed forces be deployed to deal with pandemics? If yes, what are the ways of utilising them?

To answer this, one must understand the concept of securitisation. This means that security, as understood from a realist point of view, is a social construct rather than a condition. In other words, the affected political system may define what a security threat is, and it may not be what is commonly considered a threat. The armed forces can deal with pandemics as a lead agency in countries when they are defined as security threats, and if the forces are equipped accordingly. However, if defined from the perspective of aid to civil authorities, the forces are likely to deal with the second-order impact. Additionally, the forces have a sterling reputation in the public eye and this can be “weaponised” and used to stabilise the situation, if it worsens.

The armed forces have developed several advanced capabilities in communications, logistics, inventory management, surgery and rapid insertion and deployment of modular teams. While dealing with pandemics, the armed forces can be used to supplement and, at times, complement the efforts of the civil administration.

The Indian Navy and the Indian Air Force (IAF) have significant capabilities such as secure and robust communications, near blue-water presence and dominance and strategic airlift, which puts them in the driver’s seat when it comes to out-of-area contingencies. After the outbreak of Covid-19, the two major contingencies that arose were the evacuation of Indian nationals from affected countries and providing trained medical manpower to friendly countries. The mass evacuation of Indians and nationals from at least 23 countries was earlier conducted successfully during Operation Raahat in 2015 from Yemen. In the case of Iran, India flew some of its scientists from the Indian Council of Medical Research in an IAF aircraft to set up a lab to test 1,200 stranded Indians for Covid-19. On March 13, doctors and paramedics from the armed forces were flown to the Maldives to provide medical assistance. Both these actions were made possible due to the bilateral and multilateral exercises with friendly countries on humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations, port calls, participation in air shows, seminars and discussions in various multinational forums. With the severity and spread of Covid-19 increasing, the armed forces may likely see an accelerated deployment cycle in the Indian Ocean region.

The sharp increase in the number of infected cases in almost all affected countries is an indicator that India will face this situation soon. There will be a clamour for wards and open spaces for patients, in case hospitals are overwhelmed. As the forces have shown, by creating quarantine zones and wellness centres out of pre-existing accommodations, they have the capability and manpower to do so at a larger scale, and in a much shorter time frame. The engineering equipment in the Army’s inventory can be used by local formations to support and augment civilian capacities in respective areas. The human resources of the armed forces can also be used to rapidly convert open spaces such as stadiums and parks into closed ones with basic facilities.

If there is a breakdown of law and order, there may have to be flag marches or other interventions by the forces. This is in case the police and Central Armed Police Forces are overwhelmed. The panic likely to be generated due to the news about casualty figures may lead to violence, which may be intrinsically created or inflated by external factors.

The armed forces need to weaponise their perceived impartiality in cases of intra-community violence, if any. Violence in a jail in Bogota, Colombia, over Covid-19 rumours, which resulted in 23 deaths and 83 people being injured in March, is a stark reminder of what can happen if false information is allowed to spread uncontrolled. In such a situation, the forces can be pressed into action.

With rugged distribution networks, the armed forces are adept at the distribution of basic amenities during natural calamities, as has been evident in the aftermath of many natural disasters in India and abroad. These capabilities can be utilised by the government and local administration to provide basic food and medicines to remote places as well as to specific sections of society most affected by the lockdown. The forces can also be used to carry out awareness campaigns within the civilian population, thanks to their credibility.

The unique capabilities of the armed forces in terms of their trained manpower, communications and extensive distribution networks will complement the government’s efforts. They must be prepared for a role that will be challenging and risky. However, all these capacities can be brought to bear on the condition that the forces themselves are safe and infection-free.

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