Many ways the military can help in Covid-19 crisis

I understand that there are many who are concerned about Defence Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob’s announcement about the military assisting the police on patrols from Sunday onwards.

First, two caveats:

I am not part of this government and I was not privy to the thinking process of the minister: I don’t wish to speak for the minister nor defend him.

Second, deploying the army to assist the police is not wrong. During flood relief operations, we call on the Armed Forces to assist. So I see no wrong in the deployment.

But it will be really unfortunate if the government or our society at large thinks that what the Armed Forces could do is just patrolling. My key message is that as a government, as a society, and as a nation, especially in times of crisis, we need to know the full range of capabilities residing with our Armed Forces and deploy them most effectively.

We must now be prepared for the worst in order to have the best outcome in such a crisis. We must be prepared for the possibility of facing a scenario similar to Italy in order to paradoxically avoid going that way. As we say in Malay, “sediakan payung sebelum hujan”.

The most important task that the Armed Forces as a whole, not just the army but also the navy and air force, must be asked to do is to “scenario plan” in the event Malaysia reaches 3,000 cases; 5,000 cases; 10,000 cases and beyond. By then the civilian authorities alone would not be able to cope.

The Armed Forces is almost like a “government within a government” with its medical corps, engineering corps, CBRNe (chemical, biological, radioactive and nuclear explosive) units etc. All assets can be deployed in the event of crisis. The primary role of the Armed Forces is to prepare and to fight a war. “Military Operations Other Than War”, such as disaster relief, is the secondary role of the Armed Forces.

The Armed Forces are trained to deal with all sorts of contingencies and provide possible responses, of course, under the guidance and instruction of the civilian authorities.

Here are some roles that the Malaysian Armed Forces could play as the crisis deepens:

Assist civilian authorities if there is a need for a more intense version of lockdown with tight enforcement;

Prepare extra beds and ward areas in military hospitals to supplement public hospital capacities. The Armed Forces may consider setting up forward casualty clearance areas to help filter through the cases as determined by triage to avoid swamping public hospitals and military hospitals;

Mobilise the Engineering Corps to build temporary structures for emergency use;

Mobilise military lift and other logistical capabilities if there’s a need to maintain supply lines. For harder to reach areas, military medical lift capabilities can continue to support civilian authorities if casualty evacuation as needed.

If there is a need for it, 12 Squadron Royal Engineer Regiment, the only combat engineering squadron trained and equipped for chemical, biological, radioactive and nuclear warfare, can help health officials as needed.

The military can also be mobilised for disinfection efforts.

If manpower requirements are not met by active-duty forces, the reserve units, Territorial Army (or Wataniah), Naval Reserve and Air Force Reserve should be called.

In general, Malaysian Armed Forces personnel should also pass out information to the public to help keep them informed. This should be a part of a broader government effort to ensure every agency and ministry is actively sending out relevant public health information.

Again, I would like to stress that “we are at war”. We have not seen such a global calamity since World War II. We must mobilise all resources at our disposal and be prepared to step up, scale-up and win this war against Covid-19.

In such a context, it is important for all to know that the Armed Forces has a full range of capabilities and are not just to be deployed for patrolling.

Liew Chin Tong is a former deputy defence minister.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.