Rim of the Pacific, the world’s largest maritime warfare exercise, is set to kick off this summer off the coast of Hawaii. But U.S. military planners say it will have a very different feel and look in the age of the coronavirus.
Just like their civilian counterparts, Pentagon planners are facing a dual challenge from COVID-19, trying to get a handle on the still-raging outbreak among the ranks while planning for the inevitable day when the lockdown is over.
Major war games years in the planning had to be curtailed or scrubbed altogether as the pandemic spread to virtually every continent and sea lane, but there are already signs — from the shores of Australia to the skies over Denmark — that the U.S. military, gingerly but inexorably, is getting back to business.
Hosted by the U.S. Pacific Fleet in Hawaii, the biennial multi-nation war games better known as RIMPAC will be an exclusively “at-sea” drill. Gone this year are cultural activities and military exchange programs — not to mention large-scale amphibious landings by U.S. Marine Corps units.
“In these challenging times, it is more important than ever that our maritime forces work together to protect vital shipping lanes and ensure freedom of navigation through international waters,” said Adm. John Aquilino, commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet.
But, he added, “we will operate safely using prudent mitigation measures.”
The coronavirus caused disruptions in large-scale military exercises across the different services. The Pentagon in March suspending rotations to the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, Calif. and the Joint Readiness Training Center in Fort Polk, La.
“That’s the one area when it comes to training that we’re concerned about. Over time it may have a cumulative impact ,” Secretary of Defense Mark Esper said Monday during a presentation at the Brookings Institution.
Pentagon officials said that, as of Wednesday, some 7,604 service members, civilian employees or dependents, have contracted COVID-19. That includes 27 deaths have been recorded, including two military members.
The plight of the USS Theodore Roosevelt nuclear carrier, forced to port in Guam as a vicious COVID-19 outbreak sickened hundreds of crewmen, became a potent symbol for the challenges the virus posed to military readiness.
But after a broad freeze on travel and reassignments, a distinct thaw is in the air.
The Pentagon confirmed this week that the annual Marine rotation to Australia reportedly involving more than 2,000 Marines is going ahead after being delayed by the pandemic. In a sign of the changing times, however, the arriving U.S. forces need to get an exemption from local Australian travel restrictions and will be required to quarantine for two week before training can even start.
And the Roosevelt itself, thoroughly scrubbed down and with half of the 4,000-sailor crew back on board in Guam, is readying itself to go back to sea. The Navy Times reported this week that the carrier is slated to head out to sea in the next few weeks for training, maintenance and re-certifying of the air crews.
As they try to restore training and operations to a sense of normalcy, Mr. Esper and his aides are fighting a rearguard battle against Democratic critics on Capitol Hill. They say the military had badly botched the virus crisis, “too often prioritizing readiness at the expense of the health of service members and their families,” according to a letter late last month from Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and nine fellow Senate Democrats.
The Pentagon has vigorously rejected the charges, saying the letter used “cherry-picked false and repeatedly debunked assertions.”
The National Training Center and the Joint Readiness Training Center conduct brigade-level training drills for armor and infantry combat teams. They have often been used to prepare Army troops for combat in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Now military leaders say they are looking beyond COVID-19 to make sure they can continue to field a battle-ready force while taking all necessary precautions to maintain proper health protocols.
“The Army has proposed a risk-mitigation framework to the secretary of defense so that we can safely return to training operations and begin our summer move cycles,” Secretary of the Army Ryan D. McCarthy told reporters last week at the Pentagon.
The virus didn’t hit the country uniformly, so the military needs to tailor its approach to the eventual reopening, Mr. McCarthy said.
“By developing Army-wide standards and protocols now, the Army will help ensure our senior mission commanders are ready once DoD and local movement restrictions ease,” he said.
Gen. James C. McConville, the Army’s chief of staff, said he was recently at Fort Polk — home of the Joint Readiness Training Center — to inspect what is happening there to prepare for new troops arriving.
“We are applying screening, testing, controlled monitoring and tactical dispersion to create safety bubbles so units can train and operate in a protected environment,” Gen. McConville said. “Getting back to collective training is crucial but we need to make sure we have the right measures in place first.”
For the most part, so-called “Tier One” forces, such as the U.S. strategic fleet and elite counter terrorist units such Delta Force, have escaped the worst hits from the coronavirus. Pentagon officials said it’s crucial to make sure they’re sufficiently healthy to continue to train and protect the country.
“We’re taking extra care with regard to their testing, their quarantining [and] their safeguarding so we can preserve that capability that we know we absolutely must have,” Mr. Esper said.
For instance, a pair of U.S. Air Force B-1 bombers arrived in the Baltics on Tuesday following a flight from their home base in South Dakota. The bomber crew conducted training with fighter pilots from several countries in Europe.
“When you see the capability and integration first hand, it is clear we have a force that stands ready to execute the mission,” said Air Force Gen. Jeff Harrigian, commander of U.S. Air Forces in Europe and Africa.
The Army has confirmed that four brigade-sized units are being prepared for deployment to the U.S. Central Command region. One of those units is the 4th Combat Aviation Brigade, assigned to the 4th Infantry Division. It will replace another brigade assigned to the 10th Mountain Division at Fort Drum, N.Y.
Col. Scott Myers, commander of the unit, said the brigade last deployed to Europe in 2018 in support of NATO’s Atlantic Resolve mission. He called the unit, “a highly trained force comprised of aviation warfighters.”
“This professional unit remains ready to answer our nation’s call,” Col. Myers said.
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