Pentagon confronts coronavirus as global conflicts rage

Pentagon confronts coronavirus as global conflicts rage
© Greg Nash

The Pentagon worked overtime this week to shield troops from the coronavirus outbreak, limiting troop movement, restricting the Pentagon and canceled war games.

Yet at the same time, it had to respond to an Iranian-based rocket launch, North Korean missile tests and Taliban attacks in Afghanistan.

It’s a potentially unprecedented challenge for the American military: How to keep troops safe from a global pandemic while also trying to mitigate numerous global hot spots. Preparing for attacks, moving personnel around the Middle East and monitoring hostile activity all involve keeping people in close quarters at a time when the government is encouraging citizens to stay as isolated as possible.

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“I think we’ll see the continuing scaling back of routine deployments, exercises and engagements,” said Mark Cancian, a former defense official and expert with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

When it comes to operational and warfighting requirements, however, the show must go on.

“There, DOD will just accept the risk, if service members get sick they’ll be sent home or put into medical facilities but units won’t quarantine or shut down,” he said.

“U.S. presence in Afghanistan, the troops we have in the Gulf area, I think will keep doing what it is they’re now doing.”

In its latest move to protect its forces and personnel from COVID-19 -- which has now infected at least six service members and seven military family members – the Pentagon on Saturday canceled Obangame Express 2020, a wargame in Africa, to minimize “exposure of U.S. and partner nation service members to this virus.”

In addition, the Pentagon late Friday announced that all domestic travel is off limits until May 11 for service members, civilian employees and their family members.

The coronavirus outbreak “necessitates immediate implementation of travel restrictions,” the Pentagon said in a memo.

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The actions followed President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump suggests some states may 'pay nothing' as part of unemployment plan Trump denies White House asked about adding him to Mount Rushmore Trump, US face pivotal UN vote on Iran MORE’s national emergency declaration earlier in the day over coronavirus outbreak concerns. The move will free up more federal aid to go to states and municipalities battling the spread of the deadly illness, which the World Health Organization classified as a pandemic on Wednesday.

Also late Friday the Pentagon announced new rules for those who can enter the building itself, which take effect on Monday.

The new guidelines stipulate that all unofficial visits to the Pentagon – to include personal guests and friends of DOD personnel and contractors – are “suspended,” as are visits from international partners and visitors.

But while defense officials are working to make sure those under them don’t get sick, overseas conflicts continue.

Last week began with a North Korean missile launch, followed by a live-fire artillery exercise.

And in Iraq, a Wednesday night rocket attack that U.S. officials blamed on Iran-backed forces killed two U.S. troops and a British service member. Washington responded a day later with retaliatory airstrikes against five weapons storage facilities used by Kataib Hezbollah, an Iranian-backed militia in Iraq.

Then on Saturday a dozen rockets hit Camp Taji, an Iraqi base that houses American troops. Three coalition members were wounded.

U.S. Forces Korea head Gen. Robert Abrams acknowledged on Friday that in his command’s operations center, social distancing is “not feasible.”

“There’s other ways to mitigate the risk. We do screening before you go into the operations center. We have limited the number of people who are allowed into the operations center . . . . They’re constantly doing disinfectant operations . . . everyone is being ultracareful in their dealings,” Abrams said when asked how USFK have been able to maintain operations while keeping coronavirus at bay.

The actions of USFK are particularly under scrutiny thanks to the substantial, 28,000-person U.S. military presence on the Korean peninsula, where more than 8,000 coronavirus cases have been confirmed.

“We’re still flying, we’re still training, we’re still shooting gunnery . . . . All of that is possible as long as you apply the additional mitigation measures that I mentioned. There’s ways to work around it but you have to go to some extraordinary measures to ensure it’s safe for everyone.”

Cancian said that while it won't hurt the military much to push an exercise to next year, the detrimental effect grows over time as more drills are canceled.

The problem could worsen should the training base get affected.

"Think about Marine boot camp, it is not isn deal environment for spreading disease. You have a lot of people under stress, close together and being told to stop whining. If you started having a lot of sickness in these training establishments, then you’re going to have a real problem."

Abrams also said that troops in South Korea have had access to coronavirus tests and so far 145 people connected to that command have been tested, with nine positive cases.

But lawmakers are not so certain the military is doing everything possible to keep troops safe.

U.S. Central Command representatives this week told the House Armed Services Committee that U.S. troops in Afghanistan are not being tested for the coronavirus as there is “no availability of testing for COVID-19” in the country, Roll Call reported.

“Military personnel who believe they are at risk or have flu-like symptoms have immediate access to on-base medical care,” the representative told the committee in a March 12 statement.

They added that if at any time its suspected that a service member may have coronavirus, samples will be collected and sent to to testing facilities at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany or civilian testing facilities in Munich.

Lawmakers are particularly worried about the roughly 13,000 troops in Afghanistan as it shares a border with Iran – a country that has the third more coronavirus cases in the world at more than 11,360.

In a letter sent Wednesday to top defense officials, Sen. Tammy BaldwinTammy Suzanne BaldwinDemocrats try to force Trump to boost medical supplies production Senate Democrats demand answers on migrant child trafficking during pandemic Biden: I'll have a running mate picked next week MORE (D-Wisc.) pressed DOD on the availability of testing kits overseas.

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Baldwin pointed out that members of the Wisconsin Army National Guard are currently deployed to Afghanistan and that her office “has received concerns that this unit may be conducting operations in and around villages” where there are active cases of coronavirus.

She implored the officials for more information on service members’ access to testing kits, “given the already complex environment in which soldier deployed to Afghanistan operate, along with a host government that finds itself in a political crisis and tenuous peace process with the Taliban.”

And Rep. Mark PocanMark William PocanProgressive Caucus co-chair: Reported oversight change in intelligence office 'seems a bit...fascist' House approves amendments to rein in federal forces in cities House Democrats backtrack, will pull Homeland Security bill MORE (D-Wisc.) on Thursday tweeted that that he heard troops in Afghanistan have coronavirus symptoms but that officials would not say if they had tests to confirm the illness. Pocan told Military.com that the troops are 75 miles from Iran, and he found out about the situation from one of the service members' families who contacted his office.

But the U.S. military is also better equipped to handle the coronavirus outbreak, given its ability to control its people more so than in the civilian world, Cancian said.

“I don’t think anyone was sufficiently prepared, . . . [but] the military does have some tools that civilian society does not. They have control over its people in a way civilian society doesn’t. If it wanted to shut down bases, if it wanted to quarantine people, to limit activities, it could really enforce that.”