WASHINGTON — A former senior defense official expressed hopes Thursday that the ongoing coronavirus pandemic could lead to a broadening of how America defines national security.

Michèle Flournoy, who spent three years as undersecretary of defense for policy at the start of the Obama administration, also said via a webcast hosted by the Hudson Institute that U.S. attempts at deterrence in the Middle East must evolve beyond force presence. She called for an American version of China’s Belt and Road Initiative — an economic growth strategy.

“We are defining national security too narrowly. Dealing with pandemics and safeguarding the health of the American population from a threat like [coronavirus] should be part of our national security thinking and rubric,” Flournoy said. “But when you go to Capitol Hill, the colors of money, the politics of money [really] matter. A vote for a defense dollar is a patriotic act. A vote for the CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] or a vote for public health hospitals has not been seen as a patriotic act.

“Maybe this pandemic will change that. But we have got to think about public health preparedness as part of our national security going forward.”

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As part of that, Flournoy indicated a need to rethink what the U.S. considers strategic stockpile priorities, with an emphasis on front-line medical goods.

The country “could do a better job of making sure that we have stockpiles of key items, U.S. sources of key materials, redundant sources,” Flournoy said during the discussion, hosted by Hudson’s Rebeccah Heinrichs. “We haven’t done that in the medical supply chains. And I think this experience will cause a lot of people to say: ‘Why is it we are so dependent on overseas suppliers for things Americans need in a pandemic crisis like this?’ ”

Her comments have similarities with those of Paul Scharre and Martijn Rasser, two experts with the Center for a New American Security — the think tank that Flournoy founded and serves on the board of — about how America needs to rethink its national security supply chain priorities.

Coming out of this pandemic, “a first step once we get through this crisis is a whole-of-government effort, together with private industry, to really dive deep into our current supply chains and then determine which ones we should consider critical for U.S. national security overall,” Rasser recently told Defense News.

A respected figure in national security circles, Flournoy, now a consultant and co-founder of WestExec Advisors, was recently identified as a likely pick for defense secretary in any Cabinet put together by former Vice President Joe Biden, should he become president. Biden is currently part of the race for the 2020 presidential election.

Flournoy was also seen as the presumptive defense secretary pick in a Hillary Rodham Clinton administration in the lead-up to the 2016 election.

Regional deterrence

On March 20, the Pentagon announced it is operating both the aircraft carriers Dwight D. Eisenhower and Harry S. Truman, along with their escort forces and a B-52 bomber, in the Arabian Gulf region in order to send a message of deterrence to Iran.

The move sparked memories of 2010, when then-U.S. Central Command head Gen. Jim Mattis pushed the Navy to surge two carriers to the Arabian Gulf as the Obama administration pursued a carrot-and-stick approach to force Iran to the negotiating table over its nuclear program. That decision, naval experts say, caused a massive drain on service resources — an issue that may be happening again with the new deployment.

Flournoy, who was in the Pentagon during the 2010 push, indicated Thursday a need to change how America tried to use deterrence in the region.

“We [currently] deter by sending more forces to the region to try to reassure everyone. I’d like to see us reevaluate, to say: ‘Let’s focus on getting counter-drone capability into the hands of our partners in the region as an urgent matter,’ ” Flournoy said, adding such a move would do a lot more to the confidence of partners and allies in the region than “sending another 10,000 soldiers.”

“I think we need to really think about how we deter and how we posture, to allow to free up some of those resources to then be able to focus on the Pacific,” she said, adding that developing cheaper alternatives to current missile defense technologies would also be a way to bolster allies.

Flournoy also noted that the global health crisis is showing that America needs a counter to China’s Belt and Road Initiative — but one that is clever in how it works, as the U.S. is unlikely to keep up with China’s firehouse of cash strategy.

“Where we want to compete, we have to think asymmetrically. Say: 'OK, China, go build a bridge to nowhere or a soccer stadium, but we’re going to lay cable and bring the internet to this country,’ ” she said. “We need to compete. It’s not symmetrical. It’s not everywhere.”

Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.

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