The National Security Implications of Russia and China Claiming a COVID-19 Vaccine

Are some generals in China or Russia whispering in the ears of their leaders that now is the time to strike?

By Stephen Bryen


China now claims it has tested a COVID-19 vaccine on hundreds of thousands of people without a single infection and no side effects. Meanwhile Russia has released its own vaccine called Sputnik V.

What are the potential national security implications if some countries have a vaccine and others don’t?

The “Sputnik V” is a vaccine developed by the Gamaleya Research Institute in coordination with the Russian defense ministry. It is based on a proven vaccine against adenovirus—the common cold. It is supposed to last for two years; China claims their new vaccine lasts for 3 years.

The timetable for the vaccine’s full deployment is unclear. Reports from China say by the end of the year. In the Russian case testing is incomplete. The Philippines has announced it will start trialing the Russian vaccine in October, but full deployment there won’t be until mid-2021.

No matter what the timetable, and providing neither the United States nor its allies are successful, do Russia and China have powerful leverage that can be used against the United States and its friends? How would they use that leverage? What are the military implications?

Nuclear Examples

At the start of the nuclear age, when the United States was the only country in the world with atomic weapons, it is worthwhile to recall that there was a great danger the U.S. side might use them preemptively, in one case against Russia, in another North Korea, and still another China.

General Curtis Lemay, the second chief of the Strategic Air Command proposed in 1949 that the U.S. Air Force plan to destroy seventy Soviet cities in thirty days with a hundred and thirty-three atomic bombs, causing up to 2.7 million deaths and another four million casualties.

By 1953 Air Force General James Doolittle proposed giving an ultimatum to the Russians and if they rejected it, to use atomic weapons to destroy them. President Eisenhower rejected the proposal.

In the Korean War the Joint Chiefs of Staff and General MacArthur not only considered but put into motion a plan to use atomic weapons against North Korea that by that time had almost pushed the allies off the peninsula. B-29 bombers were moved to Guam along with 10 atomic bombs. But President Truman decided not to transfer the fissile weapon cores to Guam, leaving the B-29’s without usable atomic weapons.

The worst moment probably came during the Cuban missile crisis in 1962 when, in response to the installation of operational nuclear missiles in Cuba the United States launched a large number of strategic bombers carrying nuclear weapons, readied its land-based and sea-based nuclear strike missiles, and put hard pressure on the Soviet Union to pull its nuclear weapons out of Cuba. This was the only time the United States raised its alert status to DEFCON 2 (Defense Condition 2). Normally it is set at DEFCON 5.

The above cases suggest that military planners thought they had an advantage and wanted to exploit it by using atomic and later hydrogen weapons.

Defending Against Biothreats

In the book ”Defending Against Biothreats: What We Can Learn from the Coronavirus Pandemic to Enhance US Defenses Against Pandemics and Biological Weapons,” my wife Shoshana and I wrote “The Future of Biowar: What the Bad Guys Have Learned and How to Combat It.” Here are a few of the points we stressed in the article:

1. A virus can delay, repurpose or simply halt military operations enabling a potential adversary like China or Russia to take advantage.

There is plenty of evidence supporting the first point. The most dramatic example is what happened to the USS Theodore Roosevelt, a Nimitz class nuclear powered aircraft carrier that was forced out of service for months. Just recently, Britain’s new aircraft carrier, HMS Queen Elizabeth, scheduled to go on a training mission, was halted in port at Portsmouth, because of COVID-19 infections.

2. Producing detection systems, vaccines, and effective treatments is time-consuming and uncertain, with distribution of such solutions adding to logistical burdens and social anxiety.

In any case, all these steps take months, if not years, and therefore are not going to inhibit the use of biowar under real conditions. This means that other deterrents are badly needed. Right now, there is none that specifically addresses a biowar challenge.

3. Hostile states use disinformation, denial, and deception to hide responsibility while at the same time seeking significant political, economic, and military advantages in the midst of a crisis.

Misinformation will always be part of the Great Game (as it always has been). The United States has to be forthright in explaining to its own people and to its allies about what is happening.

In COVID-19 U.S. leaders were split and largely incapable of getting a clear counter-message across. U.S. scientists who work for the government have to get in alignment with government policy and not pursue agendas that undermine the effort of top leaders in assigning blame if a hostile state uses biowar.

This is all important because biowar is war, even if it is masquerading as unintentional happenstance. Unfortunately the first U.S. exercise in handling a biowar threat has largely been a disaster caused by conflict between government scientists and government leaders.

4. The Pentagon was totally unprepared to deal with COVID-19. The Navy order for all ships to stay at sea and not return to port because of infections on board meant that the Navy would have to find a way to supply the ships and deal with a spiraling medical crisis. The Pentagon and the U.S. military services need to find ways to secure effective fighting forces under pandemic conditions.

One step would be to pre-position testing kits that are broad enough in application to handle most possible bio-threats. Another is to make sure there is enough decontamination equipment. New consideration has to be given to ventilation and air purification, especially in close environments including ships, submarines, and aircraft.

Cybersecurity Vulnerabilities

A particular vulnerability is the shift to telework in the Defense Department which sounded like a good idea but multiplied the risk of compromising operations because of cybersecurity vulnerabilities. The Pentagon has consistently failed to take into account that virtually all its handheld and laptop devices, as well as its desktop computers and local area networks, contain significant Chinese components if not entirely Chinese manufactured.

The Defense Department has not revealed how many teleworker communications may have been compromised during the pandemic.

The only solution to this is to replace vulnerable devices, internet of things included, and some defense goods that use commercial computers and circuit boards. Today there is no plan to do so. This deficit multiplies the risk to U.S. security in unacceptable but preventable ways.

A bigger issue is whether possibly hostile leaders start to think that a biowar scenario is a legitimate part of warfare and can work. Just as Air Force Generals and the Joint Chiefs of Staff wanted to use atomic bombs when they thought they could exploit the advantage they then had, it was civilian leaders that tamped down their enthusiasm.

In non-democratic states the line between civilian and military is perhaps more blurry or at least opaque. Are some generals in China or Russia whispering in the ears of their leaders that now is the time to strike?

Dr. Stephen Bryen is regarded as a thought leader on technology security policy, twice being awarded the Defense Department’s highest civilian honor, the Distinguished Public Service Medal. His most recent book is “Technology Security and National Power: Winners and Losers.”

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