According to a recent major news network report, experts are predicting that by January 2015, the number of Ebola-infected patients could reach between 550,000 and 1.4 million. The report also noted that these figures account for cases in Sierra Leone and Liberia alone, which should be a concern for policymakers, as well as military and intelligence-community leaders. The rapid spread of the virus, as well as the lack of a cure, much less adequate medical containment measures or a robust treatment, make the situation seemingly impossible.
Add to that the unstable situation in the region of the outbreak, the deficient security controls in airports, seaports, and along borders in Africa, and for good measure, a terrorist element in the form of (add your favorite organization here) who would literally kill to weaponize the bug, and you can see why most Hollywood movies portray intelligence operatives as cranky and always rubbing their temples. (Not me, of course. I am a zenned-out, centered ray of sunshine.)
In early September 2014, a U.S. air marshal working a flight leaving Murtala Mohammed International Airport in Lagos, Nigeria, was stabbed with a hypodermic needle. The attacker escaped, and while medical tests have shown no evidence of Ebola or other threat agents, the fact that the marshal was allowed to board a flight back to the U.S. before the full battery of testing was done, is disturbing.
It is here that I should make a disclaimer. Most medical, political science, and intelligence experts agree that the above prediction numbers are a worst-case scenario, and that the likelihood that it will a) make it to the U.S. and b) become an epidemic if it did make it to the U.S., are very slim. A worse-case scenario, yes, but a scenario nonetheless, and one that should be taken very seriously.
With the prospect of re-deployments lingering on the horizon, it must be considered that there is a chance of a threat agent making it within our borders, and as scary as the thought of an outbreak-movie-type scenario exploding in Small Town, USA is, the thought of that same scenario playing out on a military base or bases is another nightmare altogether.
Okay, time for disclaimer number two. I am not giving away any state secrets or providing the bad guys with their next plan. Nothing that I am saying here is anything that has not been war-gamed and Red-Celled to death by people much smarter than me in the intel, military, and political communities. I have taken part in some of them, and in fact, even took part in one while I was in college.
Back in 2005 or 2006, I was able to take part in a “mini” version of an exercise called Silent Prairie, which is a national level “what if” scenario. In the scenario, numerous but isolated outbreaks of Foot-and-mouth disease break out in the United States, and when it is realized that the outbreaks center around military bases, which caused them to be quarantined, experts suspect a terrorist attack.
Experts from (among others) the Center for Disease Control (CDC), the Department of Defense, the Department of Agriculture and members of Congress all come together to formulate a response. It was fascinating and a bit unnerving, to be honest. Knowing that a simple, naturally occurring organism can cause so much chaos makes you pause and realize just how vulnerable we could be.
Which leads us back to the current situation in West Africa, and now, here. As of the writing of this article, the first case of Ebola in the United States has been documented in Texas. Apparently, an aid worker assisting in West Africa contracted the virus, and, not showing any symptoms (reports say that the incubation period can be anywhere from 2-21 days), was able to fly back to the U.S.
I have no doubt that the patient has been contained and will receive the best treatment possible, but let’s consider what could have been, and what could be. Let’s hypothetically combine the current situation with the Silent Prairie exercise, and talk about how that could affect the operational readiness of our military.
With the impending (depending on who you talk to—read: everyone) uptick in the deployment cycle (did it ever actually slow down?), there will be a flurry of flights into and out of the U.S. Most of these flights will be military chartered—in a sense, isolated—as they ferry troops to the areas of operation. There will be ships as well. Again, mostly isolated as they depart and head out to sea. But the key phrase here is to the area of operations.
As we discussed in the beginning of the article, not everyone has the same health and safety controls as we do. And it just so happens that a portion of our deployments are to the very “hot zone” where the Ebola virus originated and continues to infect many. However, you can insert just about any dangerous pathogen here; the point being that our troops have the potential to be exposed to any number of dangerous agents. And while units deploy as a whole, be it a task force, platoon, brigade, or detachment, they do not always return home together. Injuries, illness, family issues…any number of things can send one of our people home early.
And if that person is, through design or by accident, infected at some point along that trip, they will travel with and be exposed to the general public. Regardless, they will return to their base in the U.S., and if the stars align and—as my wife says—Mars is in retrograde (don’t ask), they will head to the clinic or an ER when they start showing symptoms. From there, it can be contained as much as possible.
But wait. That person has also come into contact with others via handing over their ID to board the plane, the person who hands them a tissue when they sneeze, or that railing that they touched after they wiped their eyes (and no, I am not saying that every disease is communicated this way, but some are. Ever had a cold?)
Now, take that same soldier, sailor, marine, airman, intel officer, State Department person, etc., and multiply them by the number of people they have come into contact with and infected (not everyone will be). Now put them on base, or in an embassy. And think about the measures that have to be taken in order to isolate and treat just one person infected by something like Ebola.
While you are at it, consider the fact that if more than one person has been infected overseas, and each travels to his or her own base, there is now the potential for isolated pockets of outbreak all over the U.S., Africa, or Asia—wherever they are traveling to. There is potential, if the infection spreads, that bases could end up in a medical lockdown and lockout, which would, in essence, strand any individuals and units deployed or not on base at the time it went into effect. The consequences of such a scenario are frightening, but it is one that cannot be ignored. It needs to be considered and addressed.