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Interoperability and Flexibility: Military Engagement During the Covid-19 Pandemic

26 May 2021

European militaries are not only engaged in defence missions abroad. They are also active in national search and rescue activities and natural disaster response, with one prominent example being the inclusion of soldiers to combat the Covid-19 pandemic.

The same national case studies deserve specific attention as they demonstrate the various natures of military missions in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. They highlight the importance of interoperability between both national militaries and public institutions, providing excellent lessons learned for potential institutionalisation of military pandemic response and prepare for similar public health situations in the future. Cased studies from Germany, the Czech Republic and Italy will be presented in the following paragraphs, each demonstrating a different aspect of the importance of interoperability between different national armies, the armed forces, and public health agencies.

Germany – Effective Coordination and Support Missions

Response to the Covid-19 Pandemic in Germany, especially regarding setting up testing facilities and vaccination sites as well as establishing behavioural guidelines, was significantly slowed down by bureaucratic procedures and miscommunication between different public agencies, health institutions, and suppliers. However, the German military could draw on its excellent organisational structure and coordinated flexible response protocols to support efforts to contain the virus and combat the pandemic. Notably, the first vaccination site to be ever operated in Germany was managed by the Bundeswehr, and given round-the-clock duties completed by soldiers, it was also a highly effective one in terms of vaccinations administered (Braw 2021).

However, of the 25,000 soldiers deployed to combat the pandemic in Germany, only 3,000 work in vaccination sites (Braw 2021). Other duties include supporting testing, contact tracing, and support in care homes. For instance, soldiers were deployed to take some of the already high workload off professional residential home caregivers when previously existing staff shortages were increasing due to infections among the medical personnel. Soldiers with relevant training and qualifications assisted with caregiving routines. In contrast, others provided social care – conversations, mental exercises, walks – to the elderly to give trained staff more time to complete their routines. This support of the caregivers and elderly was greatly appreciated by the media and German population and helped improve the image of the Bundeswehr in Germany (Kreutzer 2021).

Czech Republic – Pandemic Response and Transatlantic Relations

The Czech Republic is one of the hardest hit states in Europe, and care for the ill as well as containment of the virus have proven to be extremely challenging tasks. In October 2020, Czech government officials and the U.S. ambassador to the Czech Republic reached an agreement on U.S. military assistance in efforts to combat the pandemic (U.S. Embassy Prague, 2020). One month later, military physicians and carers, as well as medical administrators and logisticians serving with the Nebraska National Guard and Texas National Guard, arrived in the Czech Republic to provide immediate support such as setting up and operating field hospitals as well as assisting the development of a long-term strategy to combat the pandemic, to include logistical and medical planning. The American troops supported efforts by the Czech military to build and operate hospitals with a specialisation in monitoring and treating seriously ill patients to enhance the capacity of civil hospitals and counter unfavourable medical carer-patient ratios. (Cameron, 2020).

This response was also a product of the decades-long partnership between National Guard units in the US and around the world. However, this programme was initially not designed to include a response to health crises and the provision of medical support. However, both Czech and American troops have expressed the value of the cooperation in evaluating the impact on the pandemic response and the organisation and strength of their partnership. For instance, information-sharing procedures and coordination with Czech medical leadership, as well as mutual training of personnel such as nurse practitioners, were considered a great benefit of this cooperation, and representatives expressed a desire to continue training for medical crises as well (Mommens, 2020).

Italy – Military Support for a Transparent and Accountable Pandemic Response

Italy was one of the first European countries to be hit by Covid-19. It suffered strongly under the virus, with a rising death toll and harsh restrictions imposed on the general population to flatten the curve of infections. By late March 2020, the government resorted to calling in the military to enforce restrictions, including a lockdown in the Lombardy region. Before troops were called in, the national government discussed this response with the president of the Lombardy region and given the urgency of the situation – 627 deaths in a single day and struggles of local law enforcement authorities to police compliance with lockdown regulations – it was agreed that the army should be deployed (Di Donato et al., 2020). This swift, pragmatic, and the focused response has been positively reviewed, for instance by Francesca Melandri for the Guardian, who lauded the Italian strategy to combat Covid-19 for its transparency – such as issuing and communicating lockdown restrictions based on recommendations by medical experts – and accountability, such as the enforcement of lockdown regulations by the police and military (Melandri, 2020).

Further, the Italian government requested support from its ally, the United States. Using the Pentagon’s existing presence in Italy, such as in Vincenza and Naples (Braw, 2020), US troops assisted Italian hospitals with telemedicine services, facilitated transport and set-up of field hospitals, and provided support to Italy’s Civil-Military Operations Center to ensure a coordinated response to the COVID-19 pandemic. This mission included complex medical and logistical planning between Italian governmental and health institutions as well as US military and civil institutions such as USAID, which contributed medical supplies and other response equipment (The White House, 2020).

Lessons Learned

The three cases show different scenarios, but all highlight the importance of interoperability – between national armies, between military, governmental and public institutions, and between troops, medical professionals, and the general population.

The Covid-19 pandemic caught the world by surprise and has dominated our lives for more than a year now. However, the military learned valuable lessons on the importance of flexibility and interoperability to contribute to the pandemic response. Lessons learned include how well-established and trained military protocols for setting up first responder units and field hospitals can aid health care and pandemic response, drawing on the advantage of a clear command chain and equipment available instead of several governmental and public as private medical institutions involved. Soldiers can be deployed in the homeland to support medical professionals, which can also contribute to an improved image, and can also temporarily support law enforcement agencies and thus contribute to improving compliance with restrictions imposed for medical purposes. Lastly, international military cooperation to combat Covid-19 has helped identify shortcomings in interoperability and a lack of training for health crisis response and complicated information-sharing procedures. Building on these lessons learned, armies should continue to facilitate interoperability between armies as well as military and public institutions.

Written by Finabel Research Department


Braw, Elisabeth, “Germany’s Military an Unexpected Star in Pandemic Relief,” DefenseOne, April 20, 2021 [online]. Available at: [Accessed May 21, 2021].

Braw, Elisabeth, “No Military Has Done More for Corona-Stricken Allies Than Germany’s,” DefenseOne, April 16, 2020 [online]. Available at: [Accessed May 21, 2021].

Cameron, Bob, “Covid-19: How the Czech Republic’s response went wrong,” BBC News, October 26, 2020 [online]. Available at: [Accessed May 21, 2021].

Di Donato, Valentina, Nicola Ruotolo and Laura Smith-Spark, “Italy calls in military to enforce coronavirus lockdown as 627 people die in 24 hours,” CNN World, March 20, 2020 [online]. Available at: [Accessed May 21, 2021].

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The White House, “Memorandum on Providing COVID-19 Assistance to the Italian Republic,” April 10, 2020 [online]. Available at: [Accessed May 21, 2021].