Army may bolster postal system if COVID-19 causes delivery disruptions

The serious danger posed by the novel coronavirus COVID-19 in the United States and the main impacts it will have on everyday life, both short and long term, are felt more and more every day. As responses from federal, state, and local governments become broader and broader, there have been more questions about the role the U.S. military might have in the weeks and months to come.

The US military certainly has valuable medical resources, both in terms of provide immediate care and conduct research towards vaccines and other treatments, and some elements of the state’s national guard have been deployed to help disinfect municipal facilities and otherwise help with localized quarantines. However, the military’s ongoing contingency plans for how it would go about expanding the U.S. Postal Service could be one of the most obscure and useful things at its disposal, and is a testament to the immense logistics capabilities. that it has and that could be put to use, if necessary. This could be extremely valuable, if not downright critical if disruptions in various supply chains become severe or there is a need to quickly transport and distribute large amounts of supplies in quarantine areas.

The US military is ready to act “in the event of a postal work stoppage and postal service disruption on a national, regional or local basis”, according to the 2006 version of US Northern Command (NORTHCOM) Emergency plan (CONPLAN) 2501, which covered all aspects of what is officially called Defense Support to Civilian Authorities (DSCA). “The DOD [Department of Defense] can provide DSCA in support of the United States Postal Service (USPS) to protect, process and deliver mail to affected areas. “


U.S. Army personnel in Poland scan a U.S. Postal Service Priority Mail package. During an interruption of postal service in the United States, American troops could be deployed to help deliver mail to homes.

In 2008, NORTHCOM replaced CONPLAN 2501 with CONPLAN 3501, which also covers the activities of the DSCA and continues to include plans for the “postal increase”. As of 2012, this specific iteration of the plan was still in use, but it is not known if it has been updated since then. U.S. military commands often review and update standing contingency plans as necessary.

At least from 2006, the concept of operations to scale up USPS operations involved providing military personnel to sort mail and transport it between processing facilities, including those at airports and train stations, as well. only to PO boxes for delivery. Chain of custody mail, the falsification of which is a federal offense, is heavily regulated, so troops would not be tasked with making door-to-door deliveries. However, they could collect and deliver mail to government and business addresses and staff customer service counters in post offices. The military could also be called upon to maintain postal vehicles. The goals of all of these tasks are to reduce the pressure on available USPS resources.

CONPLAN 2501 and 3501 both describe a nationwide response. “All major DOD bases and facilities (…) should be ready to provide a basic force set option of 100 soldiers”, according to the 2006 plan. Despite the use of the term “soldiers”, all services would be required to be on-call to staff. These increases should not necessarily come from Military postal service (MPS), although military post offices can help by providing additional mail processing capacity. The task force headquarters would manage military postal augmentation operations in major cities, as required. Service members would receive orientation and a crash course in their assigned duties by USPS staff upon arrival at their assigned locations.


A flowchart from NORTHCOM CONPLAN 2501 showing the sequence of events by which the US military would be involved in national postal operations.

The initial impetus for this contingency plan was the 1970 postal workers’ strike, which crippled the US postal system and had many secondary effects. Most notably, at the time, stock transactions depended heavily on physical mail and there were concerns that it would be shut down completely. In response, then President Richard Nixon declared a national emergency and mobilized 24,000 active duty, Reserve and National Guard soldiers as part of Main Graphic Operation. Fortunately, the strike only lasted eight days.

The US Army subsequently retained Graphic Hand’s operational plans in case they became necessary again. They were eventually incorporated into the broader Defense Support to Civilian Authority (DSCA) planning.

National Postal Museum

Members of the US military supporting Operation Graphic Hand sort mail during the 1970 postal workers‘ strike.

The postal increase plan has evolved considerably since 1970 to take into account other potential mail disruptions beyond a strike. The 2006 edition of CONPLAN 2501 and the 2008 iteration of CONPLAN 3501 indicate that military personnel would be required to help “develop and implement procedures to screen, identify and process suspected contaminated mail” and “develop and publish emergency action procedures in the event a package is suspected of being contaminated. ”

These two plans were notably issued in the years that followed the 2001 anthrax attacks, which involved letters containing the bacteria and killed five people, including two postal workers. This took years and cost millions of dollars to completely decontaminate two postal facilities through which letters passed.


The parts of NORTHCOM CONPLAN 3501 dealing with issues related to potential contamination of mail. The old CONPLAN 2501 has exactly the same language.

All of this is relevant to the situation the United States faces with regards to COVID-19, including contamination issues. Although much about the virus remains unknown at this point, early studies have indicated that he can survive on cardboard for up to 24 hours and on plastic and stainless steel surfaces for up to three days.

While the stock market, which has already been rocked by concerns over COVID-19, may not be as threatened by mail disruptions as it was in 1970, many people still rely heavily on the USPS, including for the delivery of life-saving prescription drugs. The United States, on the whole, is a “mail order” – and now e-commerce – society that has grown accustomed to having goods reach people at relatively short notice on demand.

Beyond these more mundane activities, the USPS may also have more elaborate functions as part of government business continuity, which involves various plans to ensure that the U.S. government continues to operate in the event of any type. major crisis, from nuclear war to a pandemic. This could add additional emphasis to ensure that the postal system remains functional. You can read more about the continuity of government planning in the United States in this pass War zone room.

Either way, as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and other federal, state, and local authorities are increasingly encouraging people stay at home as much as they can, and in the midst of discussions about more aggressive quarantines, delivery services of all kinds will see increased use and the resulting constraints. USPS already has offers to provide so-called “last mile” service for deliveries from certain private companies, such as Amazon and FedEx, which will further increase its workload. With the likelihood that a number of postal workers will contract the virus for a number of reasons and be unable to work, especially in cases where symptoms are particularly severe, ensure that increasingly important delivery services continue as planned will only become more important. .

It is true that the USPS has reduced its “last mile” activities in recent years because companies have sought to provide more of this capacity themselves. Yet these arrangements reflect the immense existing infrastructure and reach of the postal service, which is available to deliver items to the vast majority of residential, business and government addresses nationwide.


A USPS chart from a 2016 presentation showing the myriad options for delivering items to customers on the “last mile”.

This raises the possibility of whether, with the proper permissions, the U.S. military could help the USPS expand its role during this new national crisis to include deliveries beyond mail, such as food and others. supplies, especially if certain cities or other designated areas fall under stricter containment. The National Guard in a number of states has mobilized small continents to help with quarantine-related activities, but these personnel, and those of the other elements of the reserve of the various services, may be limited in what can reasonably be expected of them.

“If you mobilize Guard and Reserve medical personnel from their civilian jobs… it has a direct impact on the community where they work,” said U.S. Air Force Brigadier General Paul Friedrichs, the surgeon of the United States. Pentagon Joint Staff. during a press briefing on March 16, 2020. “It’s the compromise.”

The logistics capacity of the U.S. military, especially in the active component, from cargo planes to tactical trucks, could be a resource more easily used to augment services, such as the postal service, to help reduce tensions elsewhere in various civilian and commercial supply chains, as well as the military. With established relationships between USPS and private companies, such as Amazon, and networks gig economy workers already more and more integrated in various supply systems, there is also the potential for cooperation in delivery services at various levels, in general.

How severely COVID-19 will affect daily life in the United States remains to be seen, but expert consensus increasingly seems the worst is sadly yet to come. Over time, depending on the severity of the situation in the United States, the United States military may be called upon to perform a variety of functions.

One of the most important roles that US troops could fulfill in the end is to support and leverage existing delivery infrastructure, such as the USPS, to provide aid to medium-sized communities who may have more in addition to need essential supplies.

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