Crimson Contagion

Effective national defense rests to a great extent on threat analysis and planning. That effort involves not only contingency planning, but an ongoing commitment to constant threat response exercises and “war gaming” against the threats.  In the better exercises a good deal of effort is given to simulations and testing of command and control during the crisis. Game theory and other exercise tools expose weaknesses and highlight the changes required to realistically deal with the threats. The tools and practices for this are well understood and readily available. Such exercises have been standard practices for decades.

The American problem is that the process repeatedly experiences a systemic failure. It fails not because the threats are not identified, not because the exercises are not conducted, not because the necessary responses are unclear or not documented and communicated. It fails because the last step in process – execution – is not taken. Just how often, and just how badly it fails, is something I explore in Surprise Attack.

Again and again our response to threats and crises has failed due to a failure to prioritize and execute the identified measures before the threat becomes reality. And once again, with the current pandemic, we are suffering from that same failure.

Perhaps the saddest part is that we have significantly expanded the scope and sophistication of our threat response exercises, and we have sound routines and practices in place to communicate the measures the exercise dictate. Those improvements began during the 1990s when terror attacks were elevated to the level of national threat exercises – following the bombing at the Atlanta Olympics, the abortive Twin Towers bombing, the Bojinka airliner terror bombing plot and the aborted Millennium terror attacks on the United States. As of 1999/2000 an expanded variety of threat exercises had become routine.  

Of course one of the fundamental challenges is prioritizing new and evolving threats over those that become “embedded” in the worldviews of national leaders. In democratic nations senior leadership tends to focus on the “threats” that were part of their own political campaigns. Staying behind the curve on prioritizing national threats can be extremely dangerous.

We have a contemporary example of that in the current pandemic:

Unfortunately this is not a new problem, the same types of executive priority failures have occurred on multiple occasions, errors in both 1941 and 2001 illustrate how presidential priorities and related resource allocations can have disastrous consequences.

One of the most dramatic illustrations of the overall systemic problem – which in reality is a matter of simply “closing the loop” – can be found in the recent history of American threat exercises.  

As early as the Atlanta Olympics of 1996, planning exposed the serious threat of aircraft being used as weapons against civilian targets. One of the problems which immediately emerged was that with the end of the Cold War very few air defense aircraft were available should such a threat become real. Even more concerning, air defense radar networks had been closed down, and it was pointed out that if a large commercial aircraft simply turned off its transponder it would literally become invisible to the FAA air control network.

In the following years the North American Defense Command began to exercise against the threat of commercial hijacked airliners, even with scenarios that involved crashing the aircraft into major metropolitan buildings. Yet in all the exercises ready response interceptors were assumed to be close to the scene and the hijacked airliners continued to broadcast their locations with their transponders left on. This failure to integrate known weaknesses, to close the reality loop, became terribly evident within the first minutes of the attacks on America in 9/11.

As a whole, American threat exercising became broader and far more realistic following the events of 2001. Those exercises addressed another fundamental problem which had become clear on 9/11 – if senior officials are not part of the exercises, the lessons learned do not get implemented in policy or in budgets. With that lesson in mind a new series of senior level exercises were created, designated as TOPOFF (Top Officials).

In 2009 the TOPOFF defense exercises were integrated with a series of FEMA exercises and designated as Tier 1 National Level Exercises. Every effort was made to involve the highest level officials; in 2009 President Obama led one such exercise from the White House Situation Room. In 2011 he was involved with an expanded exercise, one which went beyond simply response to restoration – simulating a massive earthquake on the New Madrid Fault Line along with a huge foreign cyber-attack. Such exercises are critical because they assume that the first response fails and all the measures in place “break”, the challenge is to cover from a totally broken system.

Which is what we face in 2020, with a pandemic which literally overwhelmed and broke the system. But a pandemic which (contrary to what you may hear from the White House) was  forecast by professional threat analysts, was identified early by the intelligence community, and which had actually been exercised as a threat – producing detailed recommendations on the necessary measures to deal with it.

The exercise was named Crimson Contagion. Its predictions were accurate and shocking. And once again the loop was not closed operationally – in terms of priorities, funding and national security directives. At least that’s my take on it.

If you take the time to read the articles at these two links I’d like to hear yours:

Without resorting to another post, anyone interested in this subject should read the following article. I may expand on it later but the failure to respond to an identified pandemic threat – a failure at the level of the national security council, with the national security advisor, and with presidential priorities is terribly similar to the failure in the months before the 9/11 attacks on America.

Without resorting to another post I suggest anyone interested in this subject should read the following article. I may expand on it later but the failure to respond to an identified pandemic threat – a failure at the level of the national security council, with the national security advisor, and with presidential priorities is terribly similar to the failure in the months before the 9/11 attacks on America.

I’ve decided to go ahead and further update this post with ongoing information that relates to command and control during a crisis. Reality gives us harsh lessons but they need to be learned. For the sake of focus, the following lessons from pandemic response within the military are good examples of doing things right – or not:

The following is a good example of proactive response:

This one appears to be not so good:

And this one is a perfect example of what not to do – not that inter-government and inter-service coordination is easy but it appears somebody took their eyes off the ball on this one:

6 responses »

  1. AnthonyM says:


    Hope you are keeping well.

    Can I check out how something looks from your side of the pond, as we might not be getting a clear picture of it from over here at the moment?

    If the commentary in the press over here is accurate then the debate on the future policy direction in the USA regarding the pandemic is at a critical juncture. It sounds like some commentators on the libertarian / social darwinian right wing are keen to let the pandemic run its course….I hope that is not gaining traction?

    If that route is taken the sociological, political and geopolitical consequences will be profound for the USA and the world, not to mention the humanitarian catastrophe that will ensue.

    There’s quite a lot of data on this. A very good overview is ‘The Hammer and the Dance’ by Tomas Pueyo (for some reason links often don’t seem to work for me, but it’s easy to find). It is itself quite influenced the UCL paper by Ferguson et al that has been so influential in UK government policy.

    One of the key issues is if health systems are overwhelmed (particularly in terms of intensive care beds and specialist facilties such as ventilators) the percentage death rate tends to go from <1% to around 4%…I'll leave you to do the maths…A second major issue is the risk the virus will mutate in such a way as to become more dangerous (there are already several different strains). The risk of dangerous mutations increases the greater the opportunity it has to replicate.

    I wonder if the social darwinians are thinking through the impact on their own wealth (which seems to be the only thing they are bothered about) of the melt down of power supplies, water supplies, distribution systems etc at the height of such a pandemic.

    They will also look pretty stupid if some months down the line some moderately effective treatments come on line and, in due course, a vaccine.

    A factor I am seriously thinking about is the extent to which people would tolerate a govenment that would take such a course? At the moment it is an open question to me although at the moment inclined to think to political fall out would come after the health disaster. I hope the President can be persuaded to not go down that route. Perhaps a cyber attack on Fox News would be quite a useful thing at the moment!

  2. larryjoe2 says:

    As far as I can tell your assessment is correct – its important to remember that a great many states have been barely touched by this (by that I mean the fatalities are no greater than a normal flu season and far less than the natural disasters many of them face in a given year). We are geographically a big country and that allows the political parties which lead the states that are untouched a lot of power. My state has done virtually nothing comparably speaking to deal with the pandemic – its fundamentally a political thing, Red states support Trump and a great deal of their voting public thinks its all a political/media attack on him – not reality.

    Its probably hard to fully appreciate but we have reached a point where political views have become an article of faith and faith shapes reality until you get directly slapped by it yourself. I can point you to a number of posts from medical people in Red States like mine that are essentially calling the whole thing a fake and suggesting its a media plot and that those who believe it are naive and somewhat cowardly – they should probably move to the east or west coast.

    Not to mention that big business really hates the social distancing measures. Take a read of this link to fully appreciate these views.

    My best guess is that Trump’s view will carry the day on a national basis, leaving it to the States (which helps his political campaign) and much of the country will turn off social distancing by the end of April at the latest. It will be a huge blow to the national medical community, to science in general – but unless fatalities rise massively that’s the way it will go.

  3. AnthonyM says:

    Oh my god…

    Please do plan accordingly…

  4. AnthonyM says:

    Hope you are keeping well?
    We had similar exercises to Crimson Contagion over here in the UK, codenames Cygnus, most recently in 2016. Unfortunately, whilst the excercise highlighted many of the same issue we are now grappling with, little seems to have been done to address them.
    This sort of situation seems to require planned surge capacity, which is naturally expensive.

    Alas the varying state level responses may give modellers lots of useful data on the impact of different interventions which will be useful for planning the way out of this. In Europe controls went in very close together in time, which makes it hard to work out the differential impact on the replication number of different interventions. It is however quite horrrifying to watch the way things are developing.

    • larryjoe2 says:

      As you say, exercising for almost any national security level threat leads to highlighting resources that will needed for a surge response – and those are usually quite well documented in the exercise reports. They certainly were in our Crimson Contagion exercise. The two main problems that appear to arise are both related to connecting the exercises to administration priorities. The exercises prior to the 9/11 attacks on America clearly called out striking problems in our response to terror air attacks – however those were not taken to the level of the NSC, to the President by his national security advisor or to the correct Congressional committees which could have allocated funding for the needed measures. The same can be said for Crimson Contagion although we now know senior administration figures were quite worried (see link below). Bottom line, its a matter of priorities, the money and resources are available but if the CIC or the Congressional leadership does not go to bat to allocate them – the exercises prove fruitless. And based on my studies, if it doesn’t involve military action, basically all threats fall way below the funding for the military. Which is really questionable – to wit, is setting up a Space Command really a higher priority than preparing for a pandemic which all the experts were adamant was coming, with the only question how soon?

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