The Cassandra Problem: Major General (ret.) Steve Reeves on being the CBRN voice in the wilderness

Watch any children’s adventure movie and you probably already know the plot.  Precocious adolescents discover a nefarious scheme, rush to tell the authorities, and are promptly ignored, dismissed and forgotten. It is now up to the young heroes to foil the scheme, dispatch the bad guys, and save the day.  In the closing scenes, the authorities tacitly admit their shortsightedness while publicly rewarding the brave children.  Finis. 

Like these child adventurers, in Greek Mythology Cassandra was given the gift of prophesy but cursed by Apollo to be ignored. Cassandra could foresee the calamity but would never be believed. 

CBRNE professionals can relate to Cassandra’s dilemma. In just the past two decades CBRNE professionals responded to: anthrax letters, SARS, H5N1 Bird Flu, Zika, Ebola, H1N1 Flu Pandemic, Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, chemical weapons in the Middle East, and assassination attempts in London and Salisbury that resulted in death and expensive clean ups. In the wake of each of these, commissions were formed, well-respected experts testified before their political leaders, and thoughtful recommendations were provided. In a few instances, action followed including national stockpiles of medical supplies, improved processes, government organizational changes as well as numerous strategies and plans. For the most part, however, lessons learned rapidly became lessons observed.  Limited funding occasionally followed but other priorities eventually took precedent and the events of the past returned to remote, over-the-horizon concerns.   

As we deal with SARS-Cov-2 and Covid 19 the Cassandras are out in droves. Their mantra: “Woulda, Coulda, Shoulda” – the holy trinity of regret. If we would have listened, we could have been better prepared and responded sooner and our current situation should never have happened.  We now see the human toll, along with the political, social, economic, and national security consequences they predicted yet we failed to take their advice. 

In 2019 the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services conducted a simulation named "Crimson Contagion." The exercise included 19 federal agencies, U.S. states, tribal nations, hospitals and nongovernmental organizations. It simulated a severe influenza pandemic, originating in China, for which there is no vaccine. The draft report on the exercise identified limited US capacity to manufacture personal protective equipment, needles and syringes. It likewise stated that respirators and ventilators, and antiviral medication was largely produced overseas and would be difficult to restock.

Yet there’s really nothing new here. Since the 2001 anthrax letters attack, the US, its allies and academic institutions have conducted innumerable bioterrorism exercises.  One of the first such exercises was ”Dark Winter” sponsored by Johns Hopkins University.  It simulated an uncontrolled disease outbreak and the choices senior decision-makers must make.  The conclusions of the exercise will sound eerily familiar. “To end a disease outbreak after a bioterrorist attack, decision makers will require ongoing expert advice from senior public health and medical leaders.”  “The lack of sufficient vaccine or drugs to prevent the spread of disease severely limited management options.”The US health care system lacks the surge capacity to deal with mass casualties.” “Federal and state priorities may be unclear, differ, or conflict; authorities may be uncertain; and constitutional issues may arise.” “The individual actions of US citizens will be critical to ending the spread of contagious disease; leaders must gain the trust and sustained cooperation of the American people.” “There will be the rapid spread of misinformation on cures and treatments for the outbreak.”

With so many data and evidence-driven studies, reports and exercises, why is it then that these Cassandras were ignored? Both academics and practitioners come to similar conclusions. Christoph Meyer is a Professor at King’s College London, and Richard Clarke and R.P. Eddy are former members of the U.S. National Security Council. Both looked at warnings by contemporary Cassandra’s and come up with similar causative factors for why those warnings went unheeded. Factors that play into how receptive decision-makers are to warnings include politics, personal biases and characteristics and the perceived expertise of those giving the warning and their relationship to the decision-maker. The national bureaucracy also plays a role and may see any response to the warning as diverting resources from their own priorities. The frequent refrain is that it has never happened before, so why should we worry about it now. The timing of the warning may also play an outsized role, Professor Meyer anecdotally reported that the warning of an impending war was turned away because “There’s nothing on CNN yet.” There are underlying factors as well. As Clarke and Eddy point out, “Some decision makers are uncomfortable with the warning, in part because of its complexity and also because their lack of expertise may highlight their own inadequacies and make them dependent upon someone whose skills they cannot easily judge.” This isn’t helped by scientists’ reticence to make judgements with less than perfect data.  

Then there is the issue of priorities.  Where do pandemics or bioterrorism now fit among the myriad of competing Cassandras warning of dire consequences in areas ranging from domestic issues to foreign threats to the zombie apocalypse? Now that a pandemic is no longer a high risk, low probability, sometime, maybe event, what will be learned, what will adversaries learn, and how will governments respond?    

In the near term commissions will be formed, academic institutions will hold symposia and politicians with investigate. Some will make well-reasoned recommendations about systems, processes, organization and preparedness. Others will seek someone to blame, but will discover a multitude of small errors but no grand conspiracy. No doubt national medical stockpiles will soon be overwhelmed with masks, ventilators and other personal protective equipment.

What happens next is what will really matter.  Will the lessons of the pandemic be embedded in the national muscle-memory so nations are better prepared the next time, as Taiwan, Singapore and South Korea were due to the 2003 SARS outbreak? Will the costs of maintaining stockpiles be overtaken by other priorities and the stockpiles become relics, like so many tins of Civil Defense era biscuits and crackers? 

While this pandemic’s lessons may be forgotten, both state and non-state adversaries of democracy will learn important lessons from the pandemic. 9/11 amply demonstrated the value of asymmetric warfare against a superpower, and this history altering pandemic has exposed democracy’s vulnerabilities to a non-military approach to conflict. David Kilcullen is an Australian academic and military strategist. He labels this non-military approach a “conceptual envelopment,” stating “by the time we realize we are at war, we have already lost.”  He goes on to suggest that this approach is now used by both China and Russia but also observes that both state and non-state actors are increasingly resembling each other in their approach to confronting democracies. 

Fortunately there is also goodness to be found both in the pandemic’s lessons and the people responding.  There is the work of brilliant scientists using molecular techniques in virology.  Leveraging this understanding, vaccine development that typically takes eight or more years may be compressed to less than two years using vaccine platforms.  Manufacturers have demonstrated the ability to rapidly design and retool factories to produce ventilators as well as ramp up existing production facilities for critical items such as respirator masks.  There is also a new appreciation for public health officials and the now recognized everyday heroes who provide the basic needs of well-being and human survival in areas such as food, health, safety, transportation, and cleaning.  

Militaries will also change. Despite the frequent trope that generals always fight the last war, modern militaries are adaptive and learning organizations. As adversaries attempt to employ “conceptual envelopment,” land, sea and air defenses may become less important than cyber and space defenses. Cyber-attacks alone have the potential to disrupt the critical infrastructure of entire nations, including power, water, financial systems and supply chains. Space-based attacks could disrupt communications and all the systems that rely on them. The economic consequences of the pandemic will also ripple through national defense budgets resulting in reduced defense spending regardless of what political party is in charge. As a consequence, defense industries will continue to merge. Cost-shifting from defense departments to industry will also likely occur as national research and development budgets drop.  

Cassandras will always be out there and the question of which ones to listen to will be a challenge for national security professionals and politicians alike [More on this in Sean McFate’s New Rules of War, Ed.]. What is predictable is that volatility, complexity, ambiguity and uncertainty will be more the norm than the exception. Most nations will maintain a hedging strategy, attempting to balance competing priorities and security concerns and minimize risk in as many areas as possible.  What this means for CBRNE professionals is that in the near term, there may well be an increase in biodefense spending, but  it is unlikely that spending will be sustained. This will be a one thousand piece puzzle reading “some assembly required.” The safety and security of nations relies on government spending, even if “frugal innovation” becomes the watchword. Biological warfare is, after all, natures’ renewable threat.     

Our Current Sponsors