The rapid spread of the coronavirus through the ranks has sparked one of the greatest challenges U.S. military leaders have faced in decades: how to maintain readiness and monitor enemy threats while shielding men and women in uniform around the world from a deadly health risk.
The Defense Department already has scrambled to adjust its training protocols, stopped the movement of all troops around the world, halted most major military exercises, retargeted contracts, shut down base activities and personal travel, and, in some cases, temporarily shut down the pipeline bringing new recruits into the fold.
Officials said those steps, all designed to slow the spread of COVID-19 in the armed forces, must be carefully balanced with the reality that regardless of the health risks, an army in the field can’t telework and a ship on maneuvers can’t shelter in place.
Defense officials are also acting with the heavy weight of history on their shoulders. Militaries have traditionally been both incubators and transmitters of disease for society at large. The 1918 flu pandemic took a catastrophic toll on young American recruits, and the rate of infection in the military from the new coronavirus is higher than in the U.S. civilian population.
The unprecedented scope of the challenge and the tensions within the military came into sharp focus Tuesday after USS Theodore Roosevelt Capt. Brett E. Crozier sounded the alarm about worsening conditions aboard his vessel. The Roosevelt has been ordered to dock in Guam and now has dozens of confirmed coronavirus cases among the 4,000-member crew.
In an internal Navy letter first reported by the San Francisco Chronicle, Capt. Crozier pleaded with Pentagon officials for help in getting all of the Roosevelt sailors off the ship and into quarantined living arrangements for at least the next two weeks.
Such a dramatic move would put 4,000 U.S. sailors and one of the service’s most vital warships out of action for weeks and would have a major impact on American military abilities in the Pacific theater. But it is likely the only realistic option if the Navy hopes to avoid mass casualties aboard the relatively cramped ship, where sailors are physically unable to abide by federal “social distancing” guidelines.
Navy officials indicated that they will get the entire crew off the ship and conduct a thorough cleaning of the vessel. That means the ship and its crew are likely to be idled for weeks, if not more.
Although the Roosevelt is perhaps the most glaring instance, the military is grappling with other challenges across its force. Exercises at domestic training camps are being adjusted to keep service members apart, and major counterterrorism and NATO military drills have been shelved in foreign theaters such as Africa and Europe.
The Air Force is even allowing commanders to relax hair grooming standards because trips to the base barber have become too dangerous.
Top military officials have conceded that the COVID-19 outbreak is likely to impact military readiness. If the pandemic intensifies, analysts say, the effect on the armed forces will grow.
“My gut feeling is probably six months,” said Dakota L. Wood, a senior research fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation who served two decades in the Marine Corps. “I think that you can have dramatically reduced exercises and training for several months. … We all have a lot of muscle memory; we have recollections of doing certain things certain ways. But over time, that starts to degrade.
“At some point, you’re going to start seeing degradation in the military readiness of the units,” he added.
The impact of the pandemic on the military grows each day. The Pentagon said Tuesday that at least 1,259 cases had been confirmed among service members, civilian Defense Department employees, dependents of service members and military contractors. Of those, at least four have died and 51 have fully recovered.
At least 65 remain hospitalized.
It’s unclear how many COVID-19 tests the military has administered within its ranks. The responsibility falls to commanders in the field, and in the case of the Roosevelt, it seems virtually certain that Navy leaders will want to test all sailors on board.
Officials also have been blunt in saying they simply can’t predict the lasting impact on the military because of the rapid spread of the virus.
“There will be an impact to readiness,” Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters last week. “I think it’ll be on the lower end as opposed to significant.
“But,” he cautioned, “this could change.”
Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper and other top officials insist that the U.S. remains ready and able to fulfill its mission to protect the homeland and American assets abroad. At the same time, however, the list of changes forced upon the military by COVID-19 keeps expanding.
In Europe, military officials this month dramatically scaled down the largest NATO exercise since the Cold War after the Pentagon placed restrictions on the movement of troops around the world.
At least three major military exercises have been canceled in Africa, and Marine officials on Tuesday postponed a major six-month deployment of Marines to northern Australia.
At home, each branch of the military has scaled back some aspects of training exercises under the guidance of Pentagon officials, who say only essential tasks should be continued.
At the iconic Parris Island recruiting depot, the Marine Corps has temporarily suspended the training of all new recruits. Other services have limited or completely abandoned all in-person recruiting efforts and have shifted to an entirely virtual approach.
If that continues over weeks or months, the military will have a lack of new soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines coming into the fold.
The worst-case scenario for the military would be the rapid expansion of conditions like those aboard the Roosevelt. If major military bases are forced to essentially shut down or if entire units are put into quarantine for weeks at a time, it would affect U.S. military readiness around the world.
In South Korea, a number of exercises for some 28,000 American troops have been called off and travel has been restricted to bases. Meanwhile, North Korea has launched a number of missile tests in recent weeks and said it is “losing interest” in further peace talks with the Trump administration.
In the Roosevelt’s case, officials say, there is simply no option but to quarantine the entire crew and put the vessel out of service for at least several weeks.
“We are not at war, and therefore cannot allow a single sailor to perish as a result of this pandemic unnecessarily,” Capt. Crozier wrote in the letter, according to the Chronicle. “Based on current limitations … [the ship] has instituted limited measures to slow the spread of the disease. We have moved a small percentage of the crew off ship, increased the frequency of thorough cleaning and attempted some social distancing. The current strategy will only slow the spread. The current plan in execution on the [Theodore Roosevelt] will not achieve virus eradication on any timeline.”
Adm. J.C. Aquilino, commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, said his highest priority is to protect the force but there is no plan to simply pull the ship out of action.
“I have a mission to maintain warfighting readiness to execute the Navy’s mission,” Adm. Aquilino told reporters Tuesday, but “we want to make sure that we understand exactly what the leader on the ground needs.”
Acting Secretary of the Navy Thomas Modly said limited space in Guam is complicating the logistical challenges for the ailing ship.
“The problem is that Guam doesn’t have enough beds right now, so we’re having to talk to the government there to see if we can get some hotel space, create some tent-type facilities there,” Mr. Modly said in an interview with CNN.
Unlike with other aspects of the virus crisis, President Trump has largely given the Pentagon a free hand in trying to contain COVID-19’s impact on the military. Asked Tuesday about the USS Roosevelt, Mr. Trump told reporters at the White House, “I’m going to let the military make that decision.”
Analysts say the silver lining for the military will be that each service can return to normal relatively quickly, certainly faster than the civilian economy, once the pandemic passes.
“I think it’s a slower curve, measured in weeks instead of months,” said the Heritage Foundation’s Mr. Wood. “The snapback occurs within a month, two at the most.”
• Dave Boyer contributed to this report.
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