As of May 24th, four cases of Ebolas’s Zaire strain have been confirmed in the city of Mbandaka in the Democratic Republic of Congo. In the 18 days since the first case was reported, authorities have reported 18 confirmed and 21 probable cases of the horrifying virus; 27 have died in the DRC since the outbreak began, nearly twice as many those who perished there during the course of the entire 2014 outbreak. Making things somehow worse, two infected patients escaped quarantine on May 23rd and were later found dead inside the city. The population of Mbandaka is around 1.2 million people, nearly the same size as Dallas, Texas; the new Ebola outbreak will almost certainly get worse before it gets better.
The U.S. Department of Defense has been here before. The 2014 outbreak in West Africa claimed over 10,000 lives in five countries over two years; in the early months of the outbreak, and local authorities quickly requested international assistance to stem the spread of the highly contagious and deadly virus. In August of that year, the Pentagon established an Ebola Task Force after the virus outran front-line methods of containment set up by West African governments and World Health Organization; by mid-September, the U.S. military realized that simply backing up medical personal from various NGOs on the ground with logistical support would not be enough.
The Pentagon sprang into action. Within 24 hours after being ordered into the hot zone, U.S. Army Africa chief Maj. Gen. Darryl Williams went from a fact-finding mission in Liberia to coordinating of Operation United Assistance, the newly created military mission to halt the spread Ebola before it potentially reached the continental U.S. The USMC Special Purpose Marine Air‐Ground Task Force‐Crisis Response Africa was one of the first major units on the ground, to set up a medical beachhead for follow-on forces like the specialized biological warfare units from the 1st Area Medical Laboratory stationed in Aberdeen, Maryland.
The subsequent mobilization was objectively staggering. What the Army initially planned as a 25-bed field hospital grew into a 3,000-troop deployment, complete with six research labs. The U.S. undertook 350 strategic and 161 intra-theater airlift missions and moved over 6,000 personnel in-theater, along with 10,000 tons of cargo. U.S. Africa Command set up more than 400 contracts worth a combined $120 million to get all the moving parts of this deployment to work together. The U.S. military essentially transported an armed, high-tech hospital 7,500 kilometers across an ocean in a matter of weeks.
OUA was similar to any other expeditionary deployment to a crisis area: commanders had to be appointed, orders drafted, units picked to deploy on short notice, and forward operating bases built from the ground up. But the sudden mobilization of the U.S. military’s logistical might was seen as a major boon for Ebola containment efforts. Decades of humanitarian crises have proven that organized militaries “frequently command significant and, in many respects, unparalleled logistical capacity compared to their civilian counterparts” as 2015 Center for International Security Studies assessment put it, adding that most people interviewed for their research “were positive about the role of foreign military assistance (FMA), which was seen as a necessary last resort.”
But while Army’s 2014 response is a rough blueprint for handling horrifying epidemics abroad, the Pentagon’ after-action assessments of the U.S. military’s performance showed areas of concern. The various roles and responsibilities required to tackle such a massive undertaking “were not well understood among USG departments and agencies,” according to the unclassified OUA report from January of 2016. “Insufficient established policy existed within DOD to inform operations. There was inadequate deliberate planning. There were shortfalls and a lack of knowledge of infectious disease response capabilities.”
Indeed, today’s outbreak poses new challenges beyond the usual bureaucratic failures that mar the federal government. As the current outbreak in the DRC continues, differences in geography, population density, and infrastructure will likely facilitate a markedly different epidemic than the 2014 Ebola crisis — and limit the former’s ability to respond to a large-scale contagion, according to J. Peter Pham, vice president for research and regional initiatives and director of the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center
“You think of Liberia, this is trying to help a small country of 4.6 million people about the size of Tennessee, cope with a major outbreak,” J. Peter Pham told Task & Purpose. “At the DRC we’re talking about a country the scale of which is estimated 83 million people, so twenty times larger in population. 2.3 million square kilometers, which makes it the 12th largest country in the world, the second largest in terms of land mass in Africa.”
In addition, the pre-existing ties between the U.S. and Liberia, among other West African states impacted by the outbreak, helped accelerate the rapid and massive U.S. military intervention. “The U.S. has had a long history, some would even say it’s now a tortured history, with Liberia since 1820,” J. Peter Pham explained. “Our history with the Congo is much shorter, there is not that deep tie, compared to the one we have with Liberia. The history is a little different.”
AFRICOM is not an all-powerful military force on the continent, and the existing political relationship between the United States and DRC will only hamper rapid military assistance. As J. Peter Pham pointed out, a number senior general officers in the DRC armed forces are currently under U.S. and European (and even UN) sanctions; indeed, the U.S. Treasury sanctioned high-level members of the DRC armed forces for human rights violations and possible war crimes. In the event that the outbreak grew bad enough that the U.S. government did see a need to step in, it is highly likely they would use contractors to ferry supplies and civilian personnel due to this existing tension.
There chance that the situation in the DRC could escalate to the point where aggressive U.S. military action might be required, but it currently remains slim, especially with international health organizations primed for action following the 2014 outbreak. But the airport in Mbandaka does fly to the capital of the DRC, Kinshasa, which has a population of 11 million. If the virus manages to make it to the capital, the chance of Ebola spreading internationally would also escalate — and if the U.S. military was finally asked to intervene in this worst-case scenario where the DRC and international health agencies are overwhelmed, the 2014 response shows that AFRICOM can move units into the hot zone quickly.
There is currently an ongoing debate from numerous corners that the U.S. military should not be in the lead for humanitarian operations. Unfortunately, as the 2014 outbreak revealed to the world, the U.S. military is one of the few organizations equipped and funded to tackle time-critical situations in faraway lands in a time of acute medical crisis. Time will tell of the situation on the ground in the DRC will overcome the adverse diplomatic realities that exist between the United States and the Democratic Republic of Congo. But military planners should remember: Ebola, like other contagions, doesn’t care about politics or borders. It only cares about killing — and every government official on the planet should focus on killing it first.