Whilst focus is inevitably on the impact of COVID-19 on militaries and defence industries around the world, ongoing security issues see major exercises return. The recommencement of significant drills, such as Russia’s 150,000-personnel snap exercises announced by President Putin to rehearse protection of Russia’s South-West, is a timely reminder of the ongoing continuity in defence imperatives independent of COVID-19 circumstances. With the cancellation of “Exercise Cold Response 20” in early March the first major sign of increased Western focus on COVID-19, powers recommencing these activities is an indicative milestone.
With Taiwan conducting live-fire drills against a simulated Chinese attack in the same area where China conducted maneuverers recently, and India conducting live-fire demonstrations in the border area of recent conflict with China, military exercises are signalling positions and demonstrating resolve under the tense and demanding environment imposed by COVID-19. With national tensions, economic austerity, and COVID-19 related issues around the world, these efforts are taking on a new dimension, providing a means for demonstrating resolve and resilience despite contracting economies and unfolding health crises.
Though the return of these exercises initially seems a minor issue, they are an indication of the respective states’ ambition to demonstrate strength through the COVID-19 crisis. The concern is around the potential for escalation, for similar reasons. The Russian example has already seen a Ukrainian response announced, and the Indian case is unlikely to go without response by China.
With the return of major exercises, we expect to see increased tensions and flare-ups, also likely to shelter defence spending from budget cuts imposed by economic contractions. Whilst defence spending will be lower than it would have been if it weren’t for COVID-19’s economic fallout, the increased tensions will see the defence sector insulated from the scale of contraction we expect to see across other industries. The speedy return of military exercises serves as a timely reminder of this fact.