Foreign powers test US defenses amid coronavirus pandemic

U.S. adversaries are probing America's defenses as the world is preoccupied with the fight against the coronavirus pandemic.

In the past two weeks, Russia, China, Iran and North Korea have all moved to test Washington in the sea, in the air and on land as U.S. forces have become more restricted in movement amid concerns over the spread of COVID-19.

“Exactly how distracted is the U.S. military? They want to know,” said Susanna Blume, the director of the defense program at the Center for a New American Security, referring to foreign countries.

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On Tuesday, North Korea launched ground cruise missiles and air-to-surface missiles from fighter jets into the sea, the first time in three years Pyongyang had launched such projectiles. That followed a slew of short-range ballistic missile tests in March as the hermit nation took part in large-scale live-fire military training.

Then on Wednesday — exactly a week after Air Force jets intercepted two Russian patrol aircraft near Alaska — a Russian fighter jet came within 25 feet of a Navy reconnaissance aircraft while inverted, putting the U.S. "pilots and crew at risk," the Navy said in a statement about the incident.

That same day, 11 ships from Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy repeatedly came close to U.S. Navy and Coast Guard ships in “dangerous and harassing approaches” in the Gulf.

China, meanwhile, has been showing its force in the Pacific region, sinking a Vietnamese fishing boat in the South China Sea on April 2 and sending its aircraft carrier near Japan's and Taiwan's territorial waters.

“The Irans and the Chinas of the world are always looking for opportunities, and I think that they possibly see the potential for an opportunity right now given some of the public challenges that the military has had in adjusting its guidance to cope with the pandemic,” said Blume, a former Pentagon staffer. “That’s not going to be lost on them, certainly.”

Flexing their might is not new for these rival countries, but the difference now is that the U.S. military and the nation at large seems to be preoccupied in a way it hasn’t been before as it deals with the pandemic, said Jon Alterman, a global security expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

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The U.S. military is grappling with training, readiness and force posturing as countries around the world face an exploding number of coronavirus cases. Nearly 3,000 service members were infected from the virus as of Friday.

To combat the spreading illness, the Pentagon has restricted troop movement and on Saturday extended a domestic and overseas travel ban for service members until June 30 — more than a month past the original end date of May 11.

In addition, the department has paused routine rotations and port calls, canceled war games, and curtailed individuals entering basic training.

“Where countries would look to the United States to lead an international response to these kinds of things, there is a lot more disarray in the U.S. government,” Alterman said.

“It feels to me that the real difference is not in what our adversaries are doing; it’s in our difficulty mustering an orchestrated response,” he added. 

Late last month, the USS Theodore Roosevelt became the most high-profile case of a sidelined military asset — and confusion over the best way to protect service members — after it docked in Guam and removed more than 4,000 of the 4,800-person crew following the rapid spread of the coronavirus on board.

The commander of the ship, Capt. Brett Crozier, wrote a letter to Navy leaders warning that sailors would die if he did not get permission to evacuate most of the crew. The letter ultimately led to his firing after then-acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly accused Crozier of releasing the letter knowing it would get leaked to the media.

Modly resigned amid the controversy.

The Defense Department, for its part, has insisted that its national security missions are continuing around the globe, despite the pandemic.

“I can report to you that our readiness is still high, our readiness is still strong, and we are able to deter and defeat any challenges that may try to take advantage of these opportunities at this point of crisis,” Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark Milley said Tuesday at the Pentagon.

Defense Secretary Mark EsperMark EsperOvernight Defense: Stopgap spending measure awaits Senate vote | Trump nominates former Nunes aide for intelligence community watchdog | Trump extends ban on racial discrimination training to contractors, military Overnight Defense: Pentagon redirects pandemic funding to defense contractors | US planning for full Afghanistan withdrawal by May | Anti-Trump GOP group puts ads in military papers Official: Pentagon has started 'prudent planning' for full Afghanistan withdrawal by May MORE, who spoke alongside Milley, acknowledged that the military will have difficulty implementing across-the-board social distancing measures and mandates that include keeping at least six feet from other people and wearing masks.

“Implementation is always a challenge, particularly in an organization that's 2.2 million people strong, that's in 140 countries around the world, that has a variety of different missions. ... How do you get six-feet distancing on a sub or even a carrier for that matter?” Esper said.

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He later added, “There's no doubt in my mind that you all could go to any camp, fort, base, you name it, and find somebody not following the guidance.”

Blume said that in such challenging times, it’s difficult for defense leaders to make judgements between keeping the force healthy — in and of itself a readiness issue — and executing the department’s mission. The sheer size and location of the military, however, helps deter aggressors.

“I think that we need to focus on the fact that the U.S. military is large. It is very geographically dispersed. There are a lot of factors working in our favor in what is admittedly a very difficult and challenging set of circumstances,” Blume added.