The CDC and the DoD wisely funded an air transport technology for Ebola patients—just not enough of it.


In Tuesday’s Washington Post, Josh Hicks observes that Phoenix Air, a jet-charter service based in Georgia, is the only airline flying Ebola patients from West Africa to hospitals in Europe and North America. Help, however, is on the way. The US Air Force is now starting a process for equipping some of its C-17 jet and C-130 turboprop transports with flying isolation wards, and expects to have the first aircraft available by January. Hicks observes that whatever the timeline, this will be a great improvement, for “the military transports would have greater capacity. Phoenix Air can fly only one infected individual at a time, whereas the military’s isolation units will hold up to twelve patients.”
On the one hand, Phoenix, the Centers for Disease Control, and the Defense Department should be commended for working together back in 2011 to create this capability, just in case an Ebola outbreak managed to infect some American aid workers. Atlanta provided the scientific expertise, and the Pentagon provided advice on how to manufacture the special materials needed. But the CDC and the DoD might reasonably be asked what sort of capacity they had in mind when they only funded Phoenix to create three single-patient wards.
Quantity, goes the line sometimes attributed to Stalin, can have a quality all its own. “Two atomic bombs,” whatever John Foster Dulles’ offer to Georges Bidault, might not have saved Dien Bien Phu. Four decent battalions of Ukrainian troops may or may not have mattered in Crimea. Six German Eurofighters in the Baltics are intended to convince Vladimir Putin that NATO is Serious. But three flying hospital beds would hardly contain a pandemic.
Perhaps we should call this effort a pilot program. Probably we should not unduly criticize the two agencies, which have many other priorities to fund. We could just be thankful that someone thought of this at all. And yet, that small number three is a reminder that there is a difference, as today’s popular planning construct holds, between capability and capacity. Being able to do something at all is not always being able to do enough.
James Hasík is a senior fellow at the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security.