The global health challenge posed by the COVID-19 pandemic has put global transport, shipping, and travel into an unprecedented predicament. In response to the pandemic, governments are closing borders and imposing a complex patchwork of travel restrictions and quarantine requirements. As a result, airlines and shipping companies struggle to get personnel and cargo to their destinations and the global economy grapples to mitigate disruptions of the free flow of goods and services. For U.S. Transportation Command (TRANSCOM), the U.S. military’s main logistics provider essential to supporting U.S. military operations worldwide, these health and economic challenges also have serious consequences for U.S. national security. Now more than ever, U.S. Department of State’s Foreign Policy Advisors (POLADs) are proud to stand with our U.S. Department of Defense partners to help them meet this critical challenge to mission success.
In a world with increasingly complex transnational challenges like the COVID-19 pandemic, bridging the gap between diplomacy and defense is of vital importance to U.S. foreign policy and national security. The Office of State-Defense Integration (SDI) in the Department’s Bureau of Political-Military Affairs (PM) helps make it happen by facilitating an exchange of personnel between the Departments of State and Defense. Nearly 85 POLADs are assigned to mid- to senior-level positions in the Department of Defense, from the Office of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to the service and combatant commands, such as TRANSCOM.
POLADs help bring a State Department perspective to military operations and ensure that commanders and other military staff benefit from diplomatic expertise. Similarly, the State Department benefits from nearly 100 mid- to senior-level military officers detailed as Military Advisors (MILADs) to Foggy Bottom, bringing important perspectives and expertise to American diplomacy on arms control and nonproliferation, democracy and human rights, counterterrorism, peacekeeping, and regional security challenges.
In the world of global logistics, as in diplomacy, details matter. When COVID-19 emerged earlier this year, TRANSCOM suddenly had to contend with partner countries, specifically those that host essential transportation hubs, barring layovers for commercially contracted air crews and crew rotations for similarly contracted ships delivering essential U.S. military supplies. Trips had to be canceled, crew members had to endure potentially lengthy quarantines, aircrews had to stay with their planes on the tarmac, mariners were unable to leave their ships to travel home, and their replacements were unable to fly in to meet their ships.
The POLAD Office serves as a link between policy experts in Washington, staff at posts working these issues on the field, and military colleagues organizing flights and ocean voyages on both military and civilian aircraft and vessels. Every day, we work to keep TRANSCOM connected with real-time information from State Department – country desks back at headquarters in Washington, D.C., U.S. embassies overseas, and the Department’s Task Force set up to assist the repatriation of American citizens from overseas – to keep personnel and supplies on track. For example:
- When questions were raised about health and safety issues in key European hubs that remained available for air transit, the POLAD reached out to country desks for amplifying information beyond that contained in Post cables.
- In regard to commercial flights bringing military personnel and families from U.S. bases in Korea and Japan, there were thorny questions to sort out involving potential quarantine of crew members who had been exposed to passengers showing COVID-19 symptoms.
- The United Arab Emirates (UAE), which had been allowing crews on military aircraft to land, layover, and take off, would not allow TRANSCOM’s commercial contract aircrews to do the same without a 14-day quarantine. The POLAD was able to connect through the UAE Desk Officer to Embassy Abu Dhabi, and obtain the ground truth from UAE authorities. Though there remain issues with travel restrictions in the UAE and other countries in the region, TRANSCOM planners had the information they needed to reroute flights to support operations in the larger region.
- The SOUTHCOM POLAD helped augment information in military channels with expert advice from U.S. Embassy sources. The POLAD took action, working through the Department’s Office of Central American Affairs and Embassy Panama, to ensure that Panamanian authorities gave permission for an aircraft to leave on an urgent medical evacuation mission.
The POLAD exchange program has been in operation for over 75 years and has grown from only a handful of individual exchanges to almost 200 State and Defense positions combined. Here at TRANSCOM, integrating diplomacy and defense has proven to be a winning formula for an agile response to the complex challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic. Smooth communication and ample information flow have been key factors for TRANSCOM in getting through the pandemic, and the small POLAD team continues to play a useful background role in the process of shaping operations, so that TRANSCOM can live up to its motto, “Together, We Deliver.”
About the Authors: Suzanne Cain is the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency Deputy in the Office of the Foreign Policy Advisor at U.S. Transportation Command in the U.S. Department of Defense. Doron Bard is Foreign Policy Advisor to U.S. Transportation Command in the U.S. Department of Defense.