Armed forces capable of more than patrolling in Covid-19 crisis

I UNDERSTAND that there are many who are concerned about Defence Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob roping in the army to assist the police in patrolling from Sunday onwards. I was asked about the matter during a phone interview with BFM radio. 

I begin with two caveats:

First, I am not part of this government and I was not privy to the thinking process of the minister so I don’t wish to speak for the minister nor defend him.

Second, deploying the army to assist the Police is not wrong. During flood relief we call the armed forces to assist. So I see no wrong in the deployment. 

But it will be really unfortunate if the government or our society at large thinks that the armed forces can do no more than patrol. My key message is that as a government, as a society, and as a nation, especially in time of crisis, we need to know the full range of capabilities residing with our armed forces and deploy them most effectively. 

We must now be prepared for the worst in order to have the best outcome in such crisis. We must be prepared for the possibility of facing a scenario similar to Italy in order to paradoxically avoid going that way. As we say in Malay, “Sediakan payung sebelum hujan”.

The most important task that the armed forces as a whole, not just the army but also the navy and air force, must be asked to do is to “scenario plan” in the event Malaysia reaches 3,000 cases; 5,000 cases; 10,000 cases and beyond. By then the civilian authorities alone would not be able to cope. 

The armed forces are almost like a “government within a government” with its medical corps, engineering corps, CBRNe (chemical, biological, radioactive and nuclear explosive) unit, etc. All assets can be deployed in the event of crisis. The primary role of the armed forces is to prepare and to fight war. “Military Operations Other Than War”, such as disaster relief, are the armed forces’ secondary role.    

The armed forces are trained to deal with all sorts of contingencies and provide possible responses, of course, under the guidance and instruction of the civilian authorities. 

Here are some roles that the Malaysian armed forces could play as the crisis deepens:  

a) Assist civilian authorities if there is a need for more intense version of lockdown with tight enforcement;  

b) Military hospitals should prepare extra beds and ward areas to supplement public hospital capacities. The armed forces may consider setting up forward casualty clearance areas to help filter through the cases as determined by triage to avoid swamping public hospitals and military hospitals; 

c) The engineering corps can be mobilised to build temporary structures for emergency use; 

d) Military lift and other logistical capabilities should be mobilised if there’s a need to maintain supply lines. For harder to reach areas, military medical lift capabilities can continue to support civilian authorities in casevac (casualty evacuation) as needed.

e) If there is a need for it, 12 Skn RAJD which is the only combat engineering squadron trained and equipped for CBRNe can help health officials as needed. 

f) Military can also be mobilised for disinfection effort.

g) If manpower requirements are not met by active duty forces, the reserve units i.e. Wataniah, Pasukan Simpanan Laut, and Pasukan Simpanan Udara) should be called. 

h) In general, MAF personnel should also pass out information to the public to help keep them informed. This should be a part of a broader government effort to ensure every agency and ministry is actively sending out relevant public health information.

Again, I would like to stress that “we are at war”. We have not seen such a global calamity since World War II. We must mobilise all resources at our disposal and be prepared to step up, scale up and win this war against Covid-19. In such a context, it is important for all to know that the armed forces has a full range of capabilities and need not just be deployed to patrol. – March 20, 2020.

* Liew Chin Tong is the former deputy defence minister.

* This is the opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insight.

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