Image courtesy of the New York Times. Image courtesy of the New York Times.

By Major Matt Cavanaugh

In his famous 1998 set of BBC Radio Reith lectures, military historian Sir John Keegan described war as a “protean activity” that “changes form, often unpredictably” like a “disease” that “exhibits the capacity to mutate and mutates fastest in the face of efforts to control or eliminate it.”  Today, some have used similar themes in describing ISIS.  Columnist Maureen Doud has noted that ISIS “has rampaged like a flesh-eating virus through the region,” while her colleague at the New York Times, Tom Friedman, writes about ISIS that we can only “contain these organisms, until the natural antibodies from within emerge.”  And, ISIS certainly can seem like a horrible malady that will not end.  Particularly when coupled with all the writing on the 100th anniversary of WWI.  We’re told that our modern world bears many similarities to that of a century ago – Margaret MacMillan of Oxford has argued that we’re complacent, while Christopher Clark of Cambridge has assessed that we could be “sleepwalking” into another global conflagration.  When we think about war in our world, we can’t help but consider that ISIS might be a catalyst for a much larger war.

But it’s worth wondering – when we compare ISIS and the Ebola outbreak –  what is the more likely and more dangerous threat to the United States and world?  It has been estimated that ISIS numbers approximately 30-40,000, with roughly 100,000 supporters.  Consider that ISIS can only coerce so many people into their ranks – they are limited by what they can “infect” by religion and geography.

In comparison, the current Ebola count stands at 7,400 infections and 3,400 deaths, which admittedly is lower base rate than ISIS.  Yet it has much greater growth potential.  In Liberia the virus is doubling every 15-20 days while in Sierra Leone it takes 30-40 days (Global Public Square with Fareed Zakaria, 28 September).  The CDC has said that the worst case scenario puts the spread at 1.4 million by January.  And it could get much, much worse.  An epidemiologist at the University of Minnesota believes that it could go airborne.  Moreover, it could get “airborne” another way.  Were Ebola to make its way into a megacity like Lagos, then there would be eight daily chances for the disease to make the flight to the United States.  This potential might compound what is clearly a growing threat and turn it into a durable one.

Image courtesy of the New York Times. Image courtesy of the New York Times.

So far, this has all been quantitative – we ought to consider the qualitative description of what we’re facing.  First, Ebola can infect anyone.  It is truly indiscriminate and will strike regardless of religious or tribal affiliation, which enables it a wider spread than ISIS.  With ISIS, we can target that organization’s material capabilities (i.e. the current airstrikes); Ebola is a much more problematic “target set” in this regard – what good are our strike capabilities?  Of course, ISIS shocked the conscience of the world by killing journalists; Ebola would literally kill everyone as “it” has no conscience.  And what is perhaps most worrying – as bad as they are, most members of ISIS have some morale that we can potentially degrade. In comparison, Ebola has no will to erode.

So, consider this thought experiment – what if we knew for certain that ISIS would double in a month?  Then again. And so on.  That’s the Ebola outbreak’s track record.  One could think of this Ebola outbreak like a persistently growing earthquake – shaking first for a month at 3.0 on the Richter scale, then a month at 4.0, then 5.0 – until, like the 3-11 quake that hit Japan, eventually we get to 9.0 and catastrophic strategic effect.

That’s what this outbreak is doing.  But it doesn’t have to be this way.  There have been five outbreaks of Ebola in Uganda in the last fourteen years – all were contained successfully.  Senegal and Nigeria have also recently contained outbreaks. (Global Public Square with Fareed Zakaria, 28 September).

Only sustained landpower can coordinate an effective containment response.  This past weekend, Chelsea Clinton of the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) related a story about a massive air shipment her organization arranged with various drug manufacturers to get aid into West Africa. The problem: there was no ground coordination or trucks equipped to get the goods out to the people that needed it the most.  This is what landpower can do – fix “the last mile” problem.  When the guys in brown shorts can’t go, you have to call for the folks in digital camo. An outbreak like this is just as much a signal of a weak body politic (and security apparatus) as it is a human disease.  These countries need support to fill the basic state functions related to health, security, and public order in order to adequately respond to the threat.

But to be effective, the support must be put on the ground soon.  The landpower instrument of the U.S. military (and international coalition partners), for example, had difficulty holding territory in Iraq and Afghanistan. So far, infections have grown most in Sierra Leone and Liberia.  But, if the infections were to take hold in just two adjacent countries (Guinea and Ivory Coast) – based upon Iraq and Afghanistan as recent examples – we might be approaching the international community’s edge of ground force capacity to act to help control the spread.  By then the problem might exceed the natural limits of these landpower resources.  Here’s why.

Landpower is human-intensive, meaning, we need a lot of people to do it.  So I took a hack at a back-of-the-envelope calculation for the ground troops needed to control the land surrounding the spread.  Now, bear in mind, this is just a plain educated guess and should not be considered in any way a hard figure.  The truth is that I’m not sure anyone in the military has any real valid assumptions available upon which to base these numbers.  Landpower has assisted in humanitarian operations of every stripe in the past, to include an actual global pandemic (Spanish flu) – but as Keegan so accurately described, each virus is different and has the unfortunate potential for mutation.  That said, here goes with the numbers.

Based off The Economist’s Pocket World in Figures 2013, here are the relative sizes, in geographical order, of the countries of West Africa.  Note: I’m using space and size as opposed to population – one could just as easily choose population – there are good reasons to go either way.  In my mind, space edges out population, as one critical mission would certainly be to control international borders (not to mention sea and airports):

  • Senegal: 197 (thousand square kilometers)
  • Guinea: 246
  • Sierra Leone: 72
  • Liberia: 111
  • Ivory Coast: 322
  • Ghana: 239
  • Togo: 57
  • Benin: 113
  • Nigeria: 924

That’s to get a sense of relative regional size.  For now, we’re just looking at Sierra Leone and Liberia. Together they are 183,000 sq. km.

For context, Iraq is 438,000 sq. km. and Afghanistan is 652,000 sq. km.

At the height of the Iraq War, total foreign troop strength (U.S. and coalition) was around 180,000.  When we divide 180 (thousand troops) by 438 (thousand square kilometers) we get a figure of roughly 1 soldier per 2.5 sq. km.

At the height of the Afghan War, total foreign troop strength was around 130,000. When we divide 130 (thousand troops) by 652 (thousand square kilometers) we get a figure of roughly 1 soldier per 5 sq. km.

These represent a fairly crude force to space ratio – we might call it the “geostrategic land power requirement.”  This tells us the troops it “cost” to achieve some measure of control over our opponent in both the Iraq and Afghan Wars.  One can see that Iraq was much higher.  Perhaps we might consider that our upper bound and Afghanistan a lower bound estimate.

Using the Iraq geostrategic landpower requirement – or, when we apply 1 soldier per 2.5 sq. km. to 183,000 square kilometers (Sierra Leone + Liberia) – we generate a figure of 73,200 soldiers.

Using the Afghanistan geostrategic landpower requirement – or, when we apply 1 soldier per 5 sq. km. to 183,000 square kilometers – we generate a figure of 36,600 soldiers.

This crude estimate suggests that, based upon the geostrategic landpower requirements from Iraq and Afghanistan (circa the height of each conflict), applied to the current spread of Ebola in Sierra Leone and Liberia – it would take somewhere between 36,600 and 73,200 soldiers to achieve some measure of control over Ebola.  And were the spread to extend to the two larger adjacent countries (Guinea and Ivory Coast), the landpower resources necessary to halt the spread would likely approach and/or exceed requirements from the peak of the Iraq and Afghan wars.

In sum: ISIS is scary but Ebola’s exponential growth and fully indiscriminate nature makes it the greater threat to U.S. interests and world order.  We know what must be done and that it certainly would be successful.  It seems that landpower is the only way to achieve the control necessary to halt the spread of the disease, and that we are fast approaching (sometime in the next 3-4 months?) the tolerable limits of the international landpower community’s capacity to respond.  Of course, it must be admitted that this is all based on one best “guesstimate” that is a direct extension from experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan.

There will certainly be nits to pick about my numbers (there are lots of avenues of attack there), and some general disagreement about the ISIS threat assessment. Perhaps more importantly, I’ve begged one massive question that I can already hear: “are you really saying that we ought to deploy 40-70,000 troops to West Africa – now?”  My response: at the very least, we’d better start thinking about it.  We might not have a choice soon.  In considering this issue, it seems best to part with Nathan Freier’s 2009 writing on landpower, which is worth considering at length:

When “the price of inaction is unacceptable” landpower “will still be the [US government’s] instrument of choice for restoring minimum essential security conditions and containing uncontrolled instability.”

“In its new unconventional operating space, landpower performs two roles. It delivers lethal and non-lethal military effects, and it enables short-term delivery of essential non-military resources to governments and populations at risk. For the forseeable future, landpower will be the nation’s principal first responder in foreign contingencies where 1) core interests are at grave risk; 2) the indigenous order has been seriously undermined or incapacitated by instability and conflict; 3) violence or the threat of violence remains high; and finally, 4) restoration and maintenance of a new more stable order is only possible through whole-of-government responses that rely on force for success.”