WASHINGTON – The coronavirus pandemic is stressing the military’s ability to keep its troops ready to fight as 124 service members, their families and civilian workers had contracted the disease as of Friday and the Pentagon seeks to halt its spread.
The Pentagon has canceled or curtailed major war-training exercises, quarantined thousands of troops, closed recruiting centers and slapped limits on foreign and domestic travel. One former Pentagon official said the virus could degrade everything from maintenance of warplanes to troops’ effectiveness in combat.
Senior officials insist that the military remains ready to fight and win against any threat around the world.
“I want to assure the American people that the United States military remains ready and capable of meeting all of our national security requirements,” Defense Secretary Mark Esper said this week.
Yet strains are evident:
- Training has been canceled or cut back. The Air Force scrapped Red Flag in Alaska, a training exercise for top-gun combat pilots, Gen. David Goldfein, the Air Force chief of staff, told reporters Wednesday. The Army is altering operations at bases that prepare troops for combat to accommodate National Guard units needed in their states for relief operations. War games in Europe, Africa and at sea have been cut back or scrapped.
- At least 67 troops in the U.S. and abroad as of Friday have been diagnosed with COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus. In Europe, 2,600 troops and civilian employees are quarantined as a precaution.
- The Army is shuttering its recruiting centers across the country, moving to online efforts only. It has also reduced the number of recruits in training centers by 50%, said Gen. James McConville, the Army chief of staff. Six recruits have shown possible symptoms, he said.
- Foreign and domestic travel for troops and their family members has been banned or severely restricted until mid-May.
The cumulative effect of the illness, quarantines and missed training opportunities is difficult to calculate, experts and military officials say. But there is agreement that the disruption will have an impact on what the military refers to as its “readiness” to fight.
“All of the readiness processes are so nested that anything disruptive can have cascading effects,” said Brad Carson, a former top personnel official in the Obama administration and professor of public policy at the University of Virginia. “Coronavirus will affect everything from ship and air frame maintenance to professional military education to military exercises. And readiness has proven hard to achieve in even the best of circumstances, so the possibility of what would be a massive ‘stand down’ of indeterminate length could be devastating to readiness.”
In Europe, a major exercise devoted to meeting Russian aggression with NATO allies has been curtailed. Since January, the Pentagon has deployed 6,000 troops to take part in Defender-Europe 20, the major war game. On March 13, the Pentagon halted the stream of troops and equipment from the United States to Europe because of the pandemic.
Modified exercises will take place, Air Force Gen. Tod Wolters, commander of U.S. European Command, said Friday. But they will achieve less than half the combat tasks troops had been scheduled to drill on.
Mitigating the disease’s impact on U.S. forces in Europe is manageable for now, he said.
“Can we do this in perpetuity?” he said. “We’d be challenged.”
The Army has used the desert at its National Training Center at Ft. Lewis, California, as a dress rehearsal for troops heading to combat deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan. The austere conditions on the training grounds can mimic those encountered on battlefields overseas. Troops train and live in the field, often in close contact. McConville noted that troops in South Korea and Italy have been ordered to maintain social distance and other efforts to mitigate the spread of the virus. Those efforts have been working.
Also, in Iraq, U.S. troops have suspended training of local forces to avoid contracting and spreading the virus.
Soldiers will still train in the field, but they’ll maintain distance from one another, McConville said.
A unit from the Washington National Guard had its training deployment to Ft. Lewis canceled because its soldiers come from a state hard hit by the virus.
“We’re anticipating the governor may need them,” McConville said.
The virus effect on troops’ ability to fight will likely be small and temporary, predicted Michael O’Hanlon, a military expert at the Brookings Institution.
He likened the effects to what Hall of Fame quarterback Troy Aikman faced when his Dallas Cowboys teammates were plagued with nagging injuries. Even units hard hit by the virus will likely lose about 20% of their troops for a few weeks.
“You won’t be quite as sharp for a bit, but Troy Aikman will still be Troy Aikman,” O’Hanlon said.