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Hope is not a course of action. Through detailed planning, leaders have the opportunity to account for a range of foreseeable obstacles an operation may face and build in mitigative actions in advance. This is as true in public policy as it was for me as an operations and logistics planner in the Marine Corps. Resilience, in a military setting, is the ability of an operation to succeed, as a result of components that account for reasonably foreseeable events.
Resilience is built into a plan by including contingencies. For example, a helicopter-borne operation may include more supplies than initially needed in order to mitigate the potential delay in resupply due to aircraft maintenance or weather. Although including additional assets on the front end creates a minor inefficiency, a missed resupply has potentially deadly consequences for Marines and the mission.
In my own experience, contingency planning and risk mitigation were essential to smaller tasks, from ensuring individual Marines packed a certain number of Meals Ready-to-Eat, to planning training exercises in Southern California’s coastal hills and desert plateaus. It was also foundational for higher level planning, from wargaming endless scenarios with my battalion’s operations officer, to negotiating the future of military integration with senior Australian officials. If our planning revealed a gap that hope would have to fill, we surged resources and developed risk controls to ensure we preempted the negative effects.
If there is only one lesson we learn from the current COVID-19 crisis, it should be that we must engage in rainy day planning and preparation of this sort on a national level in anticipation of the next crisis, not in response to it.
Contingency planning is not new for the United States, but proactive contingency planning is. After the oil embargo in 1973, the U.S. developed the Strategic Oil Reserve. The Transportation Security Administration was formed after the terror attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. At the time, neither of these catastrophic events were unforeseeable, and the mechanisms instituted after the fact might very well have helped avert the catastrophe had they been there in the first place.
Impactful, outlier events are foreseeable and even predictable, if their specific timing may not be. Specific timing, however, is immaterial to contingency planning, because the focus is not on mitigating a specific crisis, but rather all crises.
Today, we observe that our current system did not include the contingencies necessary to deal with COVID-19, from delayed, undersupplied testing to a dearth of ventilators. Adopting contingencies for both government and the private sector would have incurred a monetary cost prior to the crisis, but it would have mitigated the need for drastic emergency action and spending as a response.
After the pandemic subsides and America proverbially comes up for air, Maine, in concert with the federal government, has a chance to develop systemic solutions for combatting future infectious diseases. The greater opportunity, however, is to apply this sort of preparation to all facets of disaster planning. We can account for future infectious diseases, but also other types of foreseeable events as well. From various executive agencies and their resident experts, the mechanisms for proactive government action exist, we only need to engage the process.
Although we have proven, time and again, the ability to come together in a time of crisis to create solutions, why shouldn’t we require this of ourselves? Why not prepare in advance and suffer less in crisis by proactively allocating energy and capital to save lives in the future?
Let us not wait for the next crisis in order to again prove our capacity as a state and a nation to navigate a major crisis after it has already hit. Rather, let us carry out the necessary planning under steady state conditions and avoid the crests and troughs associated with catastrophe.
Alexander W. Read is a captain and logistics officer in the Marine Corps Reserve and a student at the University of Maine School of Law.