COL (Ret) John Christian and MAJ (Ret) Jason Criss Howk

The authors have combined experience working Defense, Intelligence, and Diplomatic missions for over 50 years. They specialized in Special Operations, Infantry, Engineering, and Foreign Area Officer duties mostly at Fort Bragg and overseas.

Now is the right time for Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and Acting Director of National Intelligence Richard Grenell to deploy the U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) and the U.S. intelligence community with the task force battling the COVID-19 pandemic. This article makes clear the why, how, and offers some first concrete steps to unleash the awesome power of SOCOM and the intelligence community to make a strategic impact

SOCOM has built a robust, well-funded, well-trained, and experienced organization that has been collaborating seamlessly with their intelligence community partners to fight the “War on Terror” for decades. This is an unparalleled tracing and tracking capability that can be brought to bear in this time of crisis. There are thousands of personnel trained and experienced in conducting interviews to gather critical information and in analyzing information in this SOCOM-intelligence community.

When Dr. Anthony Fauci calls for more “contact tracing” (finding all those whom any contagious people have interacted) America doesn’t need to create a new capability. We already have this capability at our disposal. The SOCOM and intelligence community has been conducting contact tracing by another name for nearly two decades.  The bottom line for why this powerful community should be reprioritized against COVID-19 is that the COVID-19 virus will kill more Americans and kill them faster than Al Qaeda, the Taliban, ISIS, and Al-Shabaab put together this year.

On their very best day (which was our worst) September 11th, 2001, the terrorists did not kill as many Americans as the COVID-19 virus will in the coming weeks and months. Today, these terrorist organizations are distant from our homeland and in some of the most remote regions of the world. Some terrorists are widely scattered across their operating areas, while the virus is here among us now, and in growing strength. If we apply the Eisenhower Matrix (Urgent-Important Matrix) to these problems, we argue that the threat from the COVID-19 pandemic is more urgent and more important to American lives than the threat from any of the terrorist organizations mentioned above.

In reading about some of the best practices of Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Singapore, one of the things that struck me was Singapore’s “strategy of moving rapidly to track down and test suspected cases”.  Having lived in Southeast Asia for three years with my family we were always struck by how organized and efficient Singapore was. Painstaking tracking and precision targeting are key to applying limited resources to just the right person and place, all in the soonest time.  As General Stanley McChrystal points out both in his memoir and also his book, Team of Teams this is precisely what certain elements of the highly trained special operations and intelligence community became adept at doing through its cycle of find, fix, finish, exploit, analyze, and disseminate (F3EAD).  A vast network of trained, equipped, and interconnected information collectors and analysts has been put together to combat terrorists over the past 19 years.

This network can and should be used to attack the “unseen enemy” in the “war” against the COVID-19 virus. With a prioritized target list of people who have recently been identified as positive for the virus (find) a team of contact tracers would be rapidly dispatched to interview (fix) the patient and develop a detailed case history. Some people may not choose to cooperate, for privacy or any number of reasons, but others will cooperate freely. This information along with open public internet sourced information would be provided to the analysts who would use the software that they currently use to track terrorist networks to track the virus (analyze). This information would then be used to determine precisely where public health officials would need to go to inform and alert people that they may have come into contact with the virus, who to test, and who to question to gather more information. This information would also be used to target cleaning and disinfecting (finish). This detailed information would be disseminated to appropriate local health authorities and the process would begin again (exploit). This cycle allows scarce resources to be applied to the critical people and places to limit the spread of the virus as best we can.

This will have to be scaled up in the coming days, week, and months.  Not just for the current outbreak, but for subsequent waves, potentially a Fall surge (like the 1918 flu) and certainly for the next new virus outbreak.  Fortunately, our military and intelligence community has nearly two decades of experience in training surrogates, partners, and allies.  As some teams of analysts deploy and get to work with state and local officials, other teams can form the core of a training academy to teach and train additional federal, state and local authorities to continue the work and to be prepared for the next surge or outbreak.

Military and IC in a Public Health Crisis

This proposal to use elements of the military and intelligence community for a public health crisis will not appeal to many civilians, and may not appeal to many in the military either.  However, the military is already supporting the crisis with two massive hospital ships, the construction of hospitals in other facilities like the Javits Center in New York City, and the calling up of the National Guard by State officials. We have often called on our men and women in uniform to respond during national emergencies even those that were not military in nature. During the Great Depression, the Civilian Conservation Corps was run by military officers and Department of War civilians working under the Departments of Interior and Agriculture. More recently the military, active duty and National Guard, responded to Hurricane Katrina in 2005. For the current COVID-19 crisis, SOF and intelligence elements could be temporarily seconded for the duration of pandemic to the U.S. Public Health Service (USPHS) under the command of the U.S. Surgeon General. I will leave it to experts in the law to determine if this could be done under existing law, like the Economy Act, which “authorizes (federal) agencies to enter into agreements to obtain supplies or services from another agency” or if a new emergency law would need to be passed by congress. This is simply adding one more, perhaps critical capability to the nation’s pandemic tool kit.

Civil-Military Support in a Pandemic: How to Make it Happen

A few recommended first steps. The first step is to stand up DoD Task Force 19 and appoint an experienced special operations general officer or admiral to head the task force. I recommend that it be headquartered in the Washington D.C. area to ensure close coordination and full collaboration with the other government agencies that are part of Vice President Pence’s Task Force. Second, attach this task force to the USPHS. Third, if not already done, have the special operations headquarters that is in Singapore meet with Singaporean officials to get the best practices of the contact tracer teams and see how the information is captured by analysts. Then disseminate this information to the USPHS for implementation. This could be done in minutes and hours. Fourth, dispatch liaison officers with analysts to CDC, FEMA, New York and California to begin integration and analysis.

One of my best friends has always said that “the main thing, is to keep the main thing, the main thing.” Although that sounds easy, it is a very difficult thing to do. If the main thing for our military and intelligence communities is to protect the homeland then now is the time to make use of their vast experience and expertise and apply it against the COVID-19 pandemic.


John V. Christian. John retired from the US Army in 2012 after thirty years of service. During his career he served as Combined, Joint, Interagency Task Force (CJIATF) Commander for four successive JSOC Commanders:  Lieutenant General Dell Dailey, General Stanley McChrystal, Admiral William McRaven, and General Joseph Votel.  John also served as a Foreign Area Officer in Southeast Asia assigned to The U.S. Embassy in the Philippines where he worked on counterterrorism initiatives, disaster response, hostage negotiations and rescue missions.

Jason Criss Howk. Jason retired from the US Army in 2015 after 23 years of service. He served in joint, interagency, and multinational organizations conducting defense, diplomacy and intelligence missions. He has almost exclusively worked on Afghanistan from 2002 to the present. He an award-winning author, adjunct professor, and interfaith speaker who increases tolerance towards all religions.

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Jason spent 23 years in USG service conducting defense, diplomacy, intelligence, and education missions globally. Now he teaches, writes, podcasts, and speaks publicly about Islam, foreign affairs, and national security. He serves on the Board of Directors for 2 non-profits and aids conflict resolution in Afghanistan.