Military & Aerospace

Health as a National Security Issue: A case for a "Military style epidemic Intelligence and Response"
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Issue Net Edition | Date : 13 May , 2021

Pandemics can alter the geopolitical balance Greg Fyffe, President of the Canadian Association for Security and Intelligence Studies.

Health as a National Security issue

The corona-virus response of the majority of nations including the most powerful, the US can be counted as their worst failures to protect their citizens in recent history.

This primarily has been because of the changes in the nature of threat citizen’s face that is recognized as national security and the failure of the traditional public health intelligence system to fathom this threat or the failure political establishment to give credence to the inputs of given by military style intelligence. The global developments have brought public health within the sphere of national security. The mission of any nation is to keep it citizen secure. Security depends on Intelligence. Public health definitely affects citizen’s security besides health therefore is fundamental a security issue.

The importance of epidemic intelligence

The most important parameter in dealing with pandemics is the adoption of the “precautionary principle” for response as espoused by the Ontario Commission report by Justice Campbell in the aftermath of the SARS epidemic which shook Canada. States should not wait for “Scientific certainty” to take action to reduce risk and adapt a “reasonable worst case” scenario. Public health like other scientific disciplines uses deductive reasoning which we cannot afford in an emerging epidemic or pandemic scenario but require inductive or abductive reasoning often used by security agencies to guide risk mitigation.

The importance of Health Intelligence “Military style” can be gauged from the fact that the Taiwanese government took immediate steps to counter what is now known to be COVID-19 from day1 i.e. 31st December, 2019 when the news was confirmed by the WHO. They started quarantine of passengers from January 1st, 2020 alerted by “open source intelligence” (OSINT). The US too had intelligence but failed to act before 3 million passengers had already arrived from China. By the time the WHO recognized human transmission in case of the present covid pandemic on 24 January, declared it as a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHIEC) on January 30 and a pandemic on 11 March the diseases had its presence in all nook and corner of the globe except Antarctica.

The Chinese government has a history of camouflaging health related data which often has damaging consequences to the world. The CIA in the previous years had flagged the Chinese flu of 1968-69 as “Mao flu and later the SARS epidemic and even the current COVID pandemic

​​The above fact highlights the failure of the tradition Public health Monitoring systems and total lack of Public Health Intelligence in general and “Epidemic Intelligence in particular.

​​Since health is related to economic and political interest’s and nations often make health subservient to them it would be futile to rely solely on organizations like the World Health Organization to take timely action on any epidemic which could spiral into a global pandemic in no time.

Gathering public health intelligence in India is already a mammoth task and burdening them with the task of epidemic intelligence would only derail their primary task as pandemic intelligence caters to an event which is of lesser probability but huge consequence”.

The “Five eye” alliance of western powers formed after the 9/11 attacks to gather cogent threat intelligence have declared that they would pool Medical Intelligence for early warning of the next pandemic. Being next door to China, it is high time we develop our own “Military Style” Epidemic or Medical Intelligence.

Bird Flu (H5N1), SARS, COVID 19 and China 

In late 1997, an outbreak of the H5N1 virus known as “bird flu” the SARS epidemic of 2002(?) -2003 and now the SARS CoV 2 have all resulted in familiar obfuscation and denial from Chinese authorities.  China’s delayed response, secrecy, tendency to cover up and conceal, lack of full transparency, and a controlled narrative were au fait. In all cases as the virus spread, Chinese officials continued to undercount cases and delay reporting information to the World Health Organization. In Wuhan officials downplayed the virus as mild, treatable, and dismissed the likelihood of human-to-human transmission. Dissenting voices were booked by police for spreading “false rumors”. Public health emergencies on the other hand should be handled quickly, transparently, and without political considerations therefore the public health trust deficit in relation to China is here to stay.

This time it is not 1997 or 2003. Internet penetration made the Chinese realize that it is virtually impossible to cover-up for long. A thorough OSINT analysis by foreign military style intelligence did show evidence of deceit to those who wanted to see.

The United States

The United States National Intelligence Council had identified virus pandemics as a significant National Security threat and paradoxically just at the onset of the present pandemic in January 2020 published the National Intelligence estimate: The global infectious disease threat and its implications for the United States.The NIC had in its 2004, 2008 estimates predicted that such pandemics would originate from China.

In the USA, the National Centre for Medical Intelligence (NCMI) exploits tools that Public Health Intelligence cannot like clandestine Human Intelligence, satellites, and signals intelligence besides the open source reporting.

​​​​The NCMI had tracked and assessed the previous pandemics like SARS, Ebola and H1N1 and even issued alerts.The NCMI had proved it worth when it alerted the US policy makers of the H1N1 influenza pandemic two months in advance of the WHO and CDC in April 2009.

It is also reported that the NCMI had warned of a disease spreading in Wuhan, China as early as November 2019 using “wire and computer intercepts” and “satellite images” and it could pose “serious threat to US posts in Asia” and be a “cataclysmic event” and was included in the Presidents daily brief in January 2020. The US NCMI is not huge body but a poorly resourced with an estimated staff of 100 people.

The office of the Director of National Intelligence in 2013, 2015 stated that zoonotic diseases ( like corona viruses) which spread as respiratory infections, spread fast and have no immunity but kills 1 % of those infected would cause political, economic upheaval or even influence outcomes of war. It further emphasized that these are not hypothetical threats. The place of origin of the present pandemic its spread and consequences seems to be a forecast for SARS CoV-2.

When the Trump administration took over it discarded the Obama administration’s “Pandemic Playbook” and reduced the budget to Public Health preparedness plans all of which reflected in Trumps response to the NCMI warnings and consequent COVID Management. This was a result of ignoring health as an issue of National security.The US Administrations from Bush to Trump have either downplayed the biological threats or ignored the inputs given by their Intelligence agencies.

The US Corona Virus response has been dubbed by some analysts as an “intelligence failure” as it could not be converted to actionable policy.


​​Canada was probably the first country to include health in its National Security policy of 2004 linking public health to national security. In the aftermath of the 2003 SARS epidemic Canada identified eight threat vectors with Terrorism ranking as the first and global pandemic” as the eighth. The Global Public Health Intelligence Network (GPHIN)was strengthened as an early warning source for the threats. The system could successfully give early warning for 2009 swine flu, Zika, MERS and Ebola outbreaks. Sadly it slowly lost steam and had stopped issuing alerts in May 2019.It is revealing that the Public Health Agency (PHAC) of Canada which is headed by politicians and public servants in its assessment of risk, and issuing of warning of the present pandemic were three weeks late than classified Canadian and allied Military Intelligence assessment of the same.

Canada failed to incorporate the Military Intelligence inputs into its risk assessment – a serious judgmental error.

UK Experience

​​The U.K. National security strategy was formulated in 2018 and pandemic threats were separated as a bio-security review in 2018. A dual approach was followed where intelligence agencies collected intelligence on deliberate threat and Civilian Public Health authorities through international partnership collected epidemiological intelligence. Post COVID after glaring gaps were noticed the UK Government was constrained to announce a Joint Bio-security Centre (JBC) which was headed by a MI-6 (military intelligence) officer. The JBC had twin objectives of independent analytical role on COVID infection and response to spikes in infections indicating an intelligence fusion function recognizing the new ground realities.

Military Medical intelligence for Epidemic Intelligence

According to Dr. Jonathan Clemente” a medical intelligence historian, military medical intelligence was started to assess health situation in nations where troops were to be stationed, but has evolved to cater to present strategic surprises like pandemics and biological attacks. Blending of civil military cooperation in a complex humanitarian context is not new but should have harmonizing goals where Intelligence, Security and Health domains respect each other’s space.

In the current COVID-19 pandemic like in the past the Military Medical Intelligence and other Intelligence agencies were way ahead of the traditional agencies in alerting the policy makers. It is a fact that the language of Military intelligence of the USA and Europe in the last two decades since SARS has changed from being speculative to outright warning.

Response to pandemics lie with the health department yet many a technical capabilities for risk assessment, identification and even containment like extensive data mining /machine learning capability that can help contract tracing efforts lie with the intelligence agencies. If intelligence agencies are tasked with risk assessment and monitoring the public health authorities can be left to deal with response capabilities and societal resilience.Proper alert although cannot add to response capability but surely can put the existing one to efficient use.

Ethical questions will always be raised on militarization of the epidemic intelligence because of its intertwining with political issues rather than an ethical concern about health. But it also is stark realities that in the world’s poorest population with little economic padding at the household level, pandemic put more burdens on the households and further push them down the poverty line. There are apprehensions on clandestine use of dubious tools but recent technological changes suggest almost 80% of the intelligence is gathered through open sources by big data mining and analysis. Since the product would also be used by health agencies and not directly affect policy the culture of suspicion should no longer be an inhibition to use military intelligence.

There could be arguments that the intelligence agency tasked for this could either be RAW or another civilian agency. However, given its Medical Core, DRDO support in combating bioterrorism, a self-regulating chain of command and its capabilities vis à vis China could make the Indian Army a coherent choice.  Another strong reason for Military intelligence is their relentless pursuit of intelligence gathering and analysis irrespective of results. The Canadian GPHIN created out of the SARS handling fiasco lost steam and went silent in May 2019 just 6 months before the COVID Pandemic.

​​Military intelligence would always have competingbusiness and customers. While Information would be plenty thetime which the political and bureaucratic setup can spare for them is crucial. It would have to contend with bureaucratic resistance and lack of proper political patronage. Therefore it needs to be complimented by a robust strategic communication methodology to communicate with the government policy makers or else it becomes another classical case of “stranded intelligence”.

Justification in using Military intelligence:

1. The methodologies used for early warning of threats like terrorism could be applied for epidemic intelligence.
2. The technologies, innovation, adoptability and multisource information collection used by security agencies can be applied to epidemic intelligence.
3. Funding is more generous, continuous and optimally utilized.
4. Biological threats are a continuous spectrum ranging from natural diseases to bio warfare with pandemics in between.
5. The Security agencies are proficient in mining data from flood of information flowing from multiple sources.
6. Pandemics crate turmoil, affect geopolitics, especially in the neighborhood
7. Pandemic, usually start outside, more so in our immediate neighborhood and the national health intelligence come into the theatre much later.
8. Helps detect efforts by foreign governments to conceal or manipulate health data and proportionality of response to data shared openly.
9. Various actors and non state actors can take advantage of the fallouts of country’s institutional gaps in responding to pandemics.
10. State secrets of closed regimes on vital data shared, like infectivity communicability of diseases which can derail a response can be revealed.
11. The Military Intelligence uses a active data mining which is a continuous process, rather than the Public Health agencies which only does a static data mining which it receives from often unreliable tertiary centers
12. Disease often tests the limits of National Security doctrinesvis-à-vis nations hostile.
13. It helps collected data to be integrated into political, economic and other military domains.


​​A new approach towards National Security where the health and safety of the public is paramount via linkage between risk identification, early warning through intelligence and optimal response strategies is the need of the hour. Epidemic intelligence would help the nation to mobilize or rationalize response and create a surge capacity, besides any early warning given by Military Intelligence will be viewed very seriously.

Learning from terror warning there should be levels of pandemic warning where level I would be no infections and the highest level could be overwhelming of the systems.

​​​​Intelligence has always been the nation’s first line of defense 24X7 for safety and security of its citizens. If pandemics affect safety and security of the nation then intelligence is the solution. If we agree on that then why not the best: Military, which will never settle into a bureaucratic routine.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Dr Sharad S Chauhan

IPS, Additional Director General of Police, Punjab

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