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6 January 2021updated 04 Sep 2021 8:19am

Could the military solve Europe’s Covid-19 vaccine woes?

After years of personnel cuts, some armies have limited capacity to help administer coronavirus jabs. 

By Ido Vock

In 2020 the Berlin borough of Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg, known in more cheerful times mostly for anarchist squats and debauched nightlife, went through somewhat of a political crisis. Councillors from Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservative Christian Democratic Union party wanted to bring in the army to administer coronavirus tests and help with contact tracing, but they were consistently outvoted by the left-wing majority on the borough’s council, which balked at the prospect of uniformed soldiers in municipal buildings. The armed forces only came in after the borough relented in the face of nationwide criticism.

The episode reveals the widespread unease within Europe’s political culture over the visible deployment of symbols of state coercion, in particular national armies. The anti-militaristic German left is an extreme manifestation of a trend visible across the continent, which may prove one of many obstacles to European governments ramping up their vaccination capabilities. (Millions of doses a week are needed in large countries if vaccination programmes are to be completed this year.)

The most obvious way militaries could be called upon to help is by using their logistical capabilities to quickly establish large-scale vaccination centres in places such as stadiums, which would then be handed over to civilian operation.

There are few organisations in any country with the capacity to mobilise as rapidly for complex logistical projects as national armies, Jamie Shea, a former Nato official, told me. European armies have in recent years gained increased experience being deployed on the home front, he added, citing the examples of counter-terror patrols in France and Belgium, as well as UK troops helping clear the backlog of lorries in Kent in December 2020, after France shut its border with the UK following the emergence of a more infectious coronavirus variant.

The size of standing armies is also a problem for governments eyeing options for ramping up vaccination capacity, especially with regards to the administration of doses, a labour-intensive process requiring large numbers of personnel. European armies, slimmed down since the end of the Cold War, do not have much spare capacity to assist with tasks of critical national importance without compromising on national security, says Jack Watling, a research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, a London-based think tank. “Governments can take the decision to take 5,000 personnel and push them into Covid support… but that will come at a cost of readiness and military capability probably in six months’ time.”

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Number of personnel in European armies since 2000 (land forces only)
Militaries have generally decreased in size since the end of the Cold War.

This is especially a problem for the UK, whose standing army is now its smallest since the Napoleonic Wars, comprising around 80,000 personnel. As a result of budget cuts under austerity, the headcount of the British army has been cut by around a fifth since 2012. If reservists were to be called up, that capacity would be increased, but at the cost of pulling people away from their civilian jobs, many of which are required in the fight against coronavirus, Watling says.

[See also: Jeremy Cliffe on why Germany’s long-admired Covid response is in trouble]

An army’s small size is not necessarily a drag on its effectiveness in terms of national security – small, professionalised forces have long been known to be more formidable on the battlefield than large, badly trained conscript armies – but it does limit the possibilities to redeploy large numbers of personnel on the home front in a domestic emergency.

But for countries with standing armies with more spare capacity, including Italy, Germany and Greece, the military is able to lend spare manpower to logistical tasks, including administering vaccinations. In Germany, the Bundeswehr has deployed 20,000 troops to help with vaccinations, its largest deployment on home soil in almost 20 years. In Switzerland, one of the only European countries to maintain a conscription army, some cantons are locked in conflict with the federal government after requesting that troops help administer vaccines as well as distribute them.

European armies also have relatively few foreign commitments at present, meaning resources are not as stretched as they might have been had this crisis occurred in the early 2000s, when Nato troops were deployed in the Balkans and Afghanistan.

The coronavirus crisis could prompt a rethinking of the wisdom of keeping standing armies as small as possible. “One of the challenges in the future, throughout the Nato countries, is going to be to achieve a better balance between low-tech and high-tech [personnel],” Shea told me, citing building field hospitals at speed and fighting cyber-warfare as examples.

“We may need to go into Afghanistan again tomorrow, but we also need to be mindful that we’re more likely to be sucked into these homeland security tasks, dealing with shocks that are becoming more frequent [such as climate change-related disasters],” Shea added.

The role militaries might be called upon to play during the vaccination programme raises a broader question about their place in European countries, some of which have historically been wary of military interference in the civilian sphere. “There is a healthy scepticism towards using the German Bundeswehr for tasks that police could do, though under [the current German defence minister] Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer and [the former German defence minister] Ursula von der Leyen before her, there have been attempts to rehabilitate the standing of the army in society,” Sophia Besch, a research fellow at the Centre for European Reform, a think tank, told me.

All around Berlin, including the boroughs that had initially resisted assistance from the military, soldiers are now helping with coronavirus-related tasks, including vaccinations. If coronavirus is a war, even the anti-militaristic left is coming to terms with the fact that fighting it might require calling in the troops.

[See also: Harry Lambert on how the Covid vaccines could rapidly reduce the UK’s death rate]

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