Authors Note: When Dark Winter was conducted, I had taken a leave from the Department of Interior to return to my previous work with The Department of Defense to help establish the Office of Chief Information Officer (CIO) at the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA).
The Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) is an agency within the United States Department of Defense and is the official Combat Support Agency for countering weapons of mass destruction.
The CIO is the person responsible for the management, implementation, and usability of information and computer technologies.
Shortly after the exercise, the senior staff of DTRA received a briefing on the Dark Winter results. Today, the exercise is cited by its designers and those aware of its findings as an example of the stresses and potential social, political, and economic collapse resulting from either a human-made or natural pandemic event.
During a Fox & Friends interview on March 30, Donald J. Trump said of the coronavirus pandemic that “nobody could have predicted something like this.”
Nineteen years ago, this June the Johns Hopkins Center for Civilian Biodefense Strategies, in collaboration with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Analytic Services Institute for Homeland Security, and the Oklahoma National Memorial Institute for the Prevention of Terrorism, held a senior-level exercise entitled “Dark Winter.”
The day-and-a-half exercise held at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland brought together senior-level government officials to simulate a deadly smallpox biological weapons attack. The sponsors felt the simulation would both increased awareness of biological weapons attacks and identified actions needed to improve prevention and response.
Dark Winter dealt with a human-made modification to smallpox. Both the Smallpox virus and COVID-19 spread when infected people cough or sneeze droplets from their nose or mouth onto other people. Both viruses contaminate objects such as bedding or clothing.
While airborne transmissions have not been reported for COVID-19, here have also been rare reports of airborne transmission in hospital and laboratory settings.
Participants include Sen. Sam Nunn (playing the president), former White House advisor David Gergen (the national security advisor), and the retired career diplomat Frank Wisner (the secretary of state).
- Political leaders were hampered by an inability to address a crisis they had not foreseen,
- Political actions were limited by the swift and unpredictable spread of the disease,
- A limited supply of vaccines,
- A healthcare system unable to deal with mass casualties,
- Tensions between state and federal authorities,
- A healthcare system unable to deal with mass casualties,
- Inability to deal with the rapid spread of misinformation,
- Flights of civilians from infected areas,
- Domestic turmoil inflamed by political uncertainty causing military intervention,
- The closing of grocery stores created chaos.
- The Unwillingness of individuals to self-quarantine to stop the spread of the contagion,
- Border congestion,
- Restricted air travel
While the exercise ended without a clear resolution, it highlighted the dangers to democracy when the government fails to treat public health as a critical area of national security.
“Dark Winter was an exercise designed to push the system to fail to learn about its vulnerabilities,” said Andrew Lakoff, a professor of sociology at the University of Southern California who has studied Dark Winter and its impact. “The lessons of Dark Winter shaped biological preparedness policy for the next ten years, but it is always difficult to ensure that preparedness is sustained over time.”
“Dark Winter is extremely important,” retired Air Force Col. Randall Larsen (who co-designed the simulation for CSIS), told Foreign Policy, “but there were any number of follow-ons, right up until very recently—including one in 2019 called ‘Event 201’—that simulated what is happening right now with the coronavirus.”[i]
According to Mark Perry, writing in Foreign Policy,[ii] there have been no less than four separate U.S. simulations that prefigured the events that unfolded in central China in January of this year.
- In 2005, “Atlantic Storm,” organized by the Center for Biosecurity at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, simulated an international outbreak of a smallpox pandemic (as opposed to the domestic smallpox terrorism attack stipulated by Dark Winter).
- “The SPARS Pandemic 2025-2028,” conducted in 2017, tested medical responses to the outbreak of a novel coronavirus in St. Paul, Minnesota.
- “Clade X,” hosted by the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security in 2018, proposed a worldwide coronavirus outbreak with no vaccine (and which, according to Tom Inglesby, the center’s director, was designed to “provide experiential learning” for Trump administration officials).
- In October 2019, “Event 201” presented an exercise that started with an outbreak of a novel coronavirus (“a high-impact respiratory pathogen pandemic,” as its designers premised) that spread globally—and that presciently forecast COVID-19.
“Event 201 was basically an exercise that forecasts the economic troubles a pandemic would likely cause,” Larsen said, “and proposed a series of economic preparedness steps the U.S. and global economic actors could take in responding to the crisis we’re facing now.”
In the exercise, a respiratory illness starts in Brazil kills 65 million people globally, placing economic strains on international medical supply chains requiring greater cooperation among global health organizations and coordination among supply chain providers.
Event 201 “ clearly showed that a global pandemic would take a global response,” Larsen said. “It was uncannily accurate.”
“I think these simulations, these exercises, are critically important—absolutely crucial,” said Gigi Kwik Gronvall, a senior scholar at the Center for Health Security. “And I think that’s true because to really digest what is happening in a pandemic, you have to experience it.”
Gronvall notes that the current pandemic has exposed what the simulations predicted. “The response to COVID-19 was slowed by a lack of testing, which led to a lack of situational awareness,” she said. “The truth of this, the lesson, is that we just didn’t take the coronavirus reports coming out of China seriously soon enough. We just weren’t quick enough, and now we’re scrambling to catch up. It is a real problem for hospitals, which are bearing the brunt of this mistake. We needed to surge help into our nation’s hospitals right away. And we didn’t. It didn’t need to happen.”
In 2018 The Trump administration dismantled the National Security Council directorate at the White House charged with preparing for when, not if, another pandemic would hit the nation.
[i] Perry, Mark https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/04/01/coronavirus-pandemic-war-games-simulation-dark-winter/ April 1, 2020
Michael Manford McGreer is the author of “No Harm, No Foul (Bio-terrorism in the 21st Century: A study in the Pathology of Governance; a fictional account of a bio-terrorism attack based, in part, on the Dark Winter simulation.