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The military will be ready for the challenge of the coronavirus era
As the coronavirus spreads, it is important to ask, how is the United States military faring through this crisis? Are there any looming gaps in readiness that may lead to a weakening of deterrence against potential adversaries around the world? Fortunately, the answer to date should reassure us, and we need to trumpet this message loud and clear lest an adventurous foe in Pyongyang or Moscow or elsewhere gets the wrong idea.
A good place to start is with the famous curves showing infection rates over time for the United States population. The baseline trend shows the coronavirus peaking by late spring or summer and ultimately infecting roughly half of all Americans. That means, assuming conservatively an average of a one month recovery period for those afflicted, that at any moment in time, about 10 percent of all Americans could be sick. With social distancing and other such measures, the curve flattens such that less than 5 percent of all Americans would be sick at a time.
That remains a daunting figure for our hospitals and health care system. However, it is a manageable number for the military if infection rates can be held roughly to that level of 5 percent in the months ahead. There are some factors for the armed forces that could make the number greater, such as the proximity of sailors aboard a ship or of new recruits in boot camp, and the Navy has been certainly right to send most of the crew of the Teddy Roosevelt aircraft carrier ashore in Guam for two weeks rather than risk a spread of the coronavirus seen on cruise ships.
However, in general, the military can take some steps to promote social distancing and hygiene even as it continues necessary activities that do involve some proximity of people. In addition, the military is generally a young demographic, with most personnel in their late teens or twenties. While the situation is slightly different for senior enlisted personnel and officers, even there, most are in their thirties or early forties at most. This is a relatively healthy demographic, and many who catch the coronavirus will experience only milder symptoms and recover fast.
So put 5 percent attrition into perspective. Several of the military services measure their preparedness for deployment and battle on a "C Scale" with grades ranging from C1, or very ready, to C4, or not ready. To score high, units are expected to reach a 90 percent or better level for core essentials such as workable vehicles and aircraft, munitions and other supplies, and of course, people. C2 corresponds to metrics in the 80 percent range, C3 to the 70 percent range, and C4 to 60 percent or less.
The Army now says it has half its brigade combat teams at that C1 level. That is a very good figure from a historical perspective. It contrasts, for instance, with the figure from the 2010s when only two brigade combat teams reached that C1 level because of the effects of sequestration and declining military resources, continuing resolutions rather than proper budgetary appropriations for defense in most years, and the residual effects of the peak deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan.
Even the C2 level of readiness is generally considered fairly good. One of the goals of Defense Secretary James Mattis when he took the reins of the Pentagon three years ago was to restore mission capable rates of combat aircraft fleets to at least 80 percent, which translates into a C2 status. That standard has now largely been attained. Aircraft fleets are one thing and people are another, of course, but the basic point is that military units are built and trained to tolerate some degree of attrition and shortfall in their ranks, for obvious reasons related to the nature of combat.
The military has another thing going in its favor. In times of stress, some normal deployments and typical activities can be suspended for a time. Just like a championship football team can benefit from a bye week, our busy and strained armed forces do not suffer immediately when training or other activities are somewhat scaled back. Strategic requirements for those units are, to an extent, in the realm of perception, and a temporary letup in activity may not be so harmful in all such cases.
If the Teddy Roosevelt aircraft carrier battle group cannot be deployed as planned, for instance, deterrence will likely not suffer immediately in the Persian Gulf or wherever else it was headed to. Potential adversaries know that, even if we take a break now, we can always come back and visit later, maybe even with two or three carriers next time instead of the previously scheduled one. This is an important reason why Mattis stated the military needs to be "strategically predictable but operationally unpredictable." Moreover, military units based in Korea or Japan or Poland or Kuwait can hunker down in place if the coronavirus hits hard, but it does not mean they could not fly and fight if an enemy chose to attack.
The hardest question is one we may soon face on the homefront. Beyond the smaller scale tasks to which the National Guard has been directed to date, to what extent can we and should we consider using the military to help with the myriad burdens that the coronavirus is placing on our first responders, health workers, and police officers? While that question will turn harder and harder in the weeks ahead, we can absolutely begin the conversation knowing that our armed forces are in their strongest shape in 20 years to handle the stress of this kind of situation.
Michael O'Hanlon is a senior policy fellow with the Brookings Institution.