The enemy never takes a sick day, so why should the U.S. military? That seems to be the guiding principle for much of the force: Well after the civilian sector started adhering to social distancing measures in light of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, the military kept doing group physical training and school circles.
If group PT and formations were the only things that had to go, only the twitchiest of sergeants major would object to taking a break. But the very nature of military life and training means people will be in close quarters. One need only look at the inside of a military truck, aircraft, or ship to see why. Social distancing means that training stops.
But it doesn’t have to. The military is far behind civilian industry in being able to work remotely. Just being able to read one’s email from home, much less on one’s phone, is often a Herculean task.
There’s no reason that jobs like admin clerk can’t be done remotely. But if we’re truly honest with ourselves, there are far more jobs in the military that are desk-bound than not. Many are usually a mix of desk work and physical work and could still be accomplished by splitting the people up rather than the job—e.g. having some people do all the data entry remotely and others do the labor. The same guy doesn’t have to get the part out of the warehouse and input the new order into the computer. Have them work port and starboard to keep social distancing guidelines.
The military would have to realize that WiFi isn’t the devil and use VPNs like everyone in the private sector. The second thing is that the military would have to start trusting its folks to do their jobs without NCOs breathing down their necks, not to mention trusting them each with a...gasp…$500 laptop.
One of the enduring mysteries of the military is how an organization that trusts someone with handling large quantities of high explosives while a unit’s workspaces won’t trust them to correctly tie their shoes outside them.
And, truth be told, some military jobs are very difficult to telecommute with. Grunts gotta grunt and cannon cockers gotta cock. In the absence of war, their jobs are simply to prepare for one. You can catch up on unit annual training for a little while, which also would be greatly aided by assigning every person a laptop, instead of sharing communal ones in unit spaces or in base facilities. Still, one can only make people do so much MarineNet or Army Knowledge Online before the suicide rate starts spiking.
But troops can learn a lot more than that, if we care enough to provide the resources. Some individual leaders are already figuring this out and having unit discussions on professional readings and the like. Undoubtedly some leaders probably do a great job while others are just annoying, but they are doing the right thing in a difficult situation.
There’s an old saying in the military that “Officers are educated; enlisted are trained.” The implication is that officers are taught how to think and enlisted are taught to perform tasks. As warfare changes, the cognitive demands increase. There’s a reason that the Commandant of the Marine Corps wants to increase the GT scores of his infantrymen.
Once you actually extend some trust and provide them resources, it’s amazing what people will learn. With the “Pacific Pivot” finally happening, does anyone think it wouldn’t help tactical effectiveness to have a few people in each unit with at least an elementary knowledge of Mandarin Chinese, Tagalog, Bahasa, and other languages not typically found in the military demographic? Online language training is a thing now.
How about military history courses? Regular history courses? Fundamentals of engineering? Introductory English composition? Hell, even philosophy. Smarter troops means more effective troops. The military doesn’t even have to develop its own courses, and seeing how bad military online training usually is, that’s a good thing. Just figure out what courses at civilian colleges meet desired requirements and pay for a certain number of seats online. It’s an investment in combat effectiveness, but by giving college credit, also an investment in retention and benefits.
In the longer run, the military can invest in virtual reality and augmented reality devices that allow realistic training in any location. Virtual reality doesn’t require a mainframe and a 360 dome anymore. It’s cheap enough that there’s no reason every barracks room shouldn’t have at least a VR headset. We’ve come a long way from the days of “Marine Doom.” As MajGen (ret) Robert Scales advocated for when he chaired the SecDef’s Lethality Task Force, virtual reality is a way to get the thousands of reps required to master a skill without being constrained by weather, terrain, or supplies.
VR/AR is not only for the operators, though. Mechanics of all stripes often have to wait for a certain item to break before they learn how to fix it. VR/AR can get them to Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours of practice a lot faster than the real world can.
None of these would remove the need for some number of service members to remain at risk in forward areas. There are some watches, both literal and figurative, that always have to be manned. But not every quarterdeck needs someone sitting, bored out of his skull, behind it.
Some of these measures could be done tomorrow. Others will take a little more time. The COVID-19 crisis can either be an unmitigated disaster or it can actually spark some positive change.
Businesses are already learning better and more efficient ways to work that will last far beyond the emergency. The military needs to as well. If we do things right, perhaps we can even enable more people to work from home when there isn’t a crisis. That may aggravate traditionalists, but perhaps the 21st century military shouldn’t work and train like the 19th century.