Coronavirus déjà vu? In 2001, just three months before the terror attack of 9/11, various think tanks and other organizations hosted a senior-level war game examining the national security challenges of a biological warfare (BW) attack on the United States.
The exercise called Operation ‘Dark Winter’ (ODW) simulated a deliberately created, highly contagious and deadly smallpox outbreak in Oklahoma City that spread to 25 states and 15 other countries.
The simulated attack realistically coincided with simulated tensions rising in the Taiwan Straits, and a major crisis developing in Southwest Asia. The Dark Winter conclusions were sobering, and the simulation eerily mirrors today’s Wuhan Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic and response.
ODW’s revealed serious gaps in the nation’s preparedness and ability to effectively respond to a bioterrorism attack — similar to the gaps we are seeing today. The findings from the exercise included:
1. An attack on the U.S. with biological weapons could threaten vital national security interests. Massive civilian casualties, breakdown in essential institutions, violation of democratic processes, civil disorder, loss of confidence in government and reduced U.S. strategic flexibility abroad are among the ways a biological attack might compromise U.S. security.
2. Current organizational structures and capabilities are not well suited for the management of a BW attack. Major “fault lines” exist between different levels of government (federal, state, and local), between government and the private sector, among different institutions and agencies, and within the public and private sector.
3. There is no surge capability in the U.S. healthcare and public health systems, or in the pharmaceutical and vaccine industries. This institutionally limited surge capacity could result in hospitals being overwhelmed and becoming inoperable
4. Dealing with the media will be a major immediate challenge for all levels of government. Information management and communication will be a critical element in crisis/consequence management.
Today we are experiencing a real-world, real-time, global COVID-19 “wargame” that is confirming many of the conclusions from the Operation Dark Winter exercise, as well as other pandemic simulations.
We can be certain that China, Russia, Iran and other adversaries are using this current “wargame” to ramp up their bio-defense efforts.
As we aggressively combat this pandemic, the U.S. also needs to learn from and apply all the valuable lessons from this crisis.
We need to use this real-life “wargame” to develop a robust and effective national strategic effort to effectively prevent, prepare and respond to any future natural pandemic, or a deliberate bio-warfare attack on the U.S.