Pentagon girds for long battle with COVID-19

Pentagon girds for long battle with COVID-19

The Pentagon is hunkering down to live with the coronavirus for the foreseeable future.

The Defense Department must accomplish a delicate balancing act: continuing essential missions such as the fight against ISIS, while keeping forces healthy enough that those missions aren’t adversely affected anyway.

With defense officials acknowledging the coronavirus will be an obstacle at least until a vaccine is developed, the U.S. military is preparing for a “new abnormal” environment where it can resume some activities that were slowed by the virus without risking the health of U.S. troops.


“We are preparing for a second wave and maybe more. We don't know what the trajectory of this virus will be,” Defense Secretary Mark EsperMark EsperTop military officers cleared to return to Pentagon after quarantine Indonesia rebuffed US proposal for refueling spy planes: report Overnight Defense: Supreme Court to hear case on diversion of Pentagon funds to border wall | Biden campaign cutting retired general from ad after objection | Trump's arms control talks with Russia hit wall MORE said this month during a visit to U.S. Northern Command  in Colorado. “So my view has been that we’ll be at this for a number of months, at least until we get a vaccine.”

Esper also said he doesn’t see social distancing “easing anytime soon,” adding, “we're going to continue to practice good habits and do everything necessary to protect our force.”

The Pentagon’s preparations for living with the virus long-term come as President TrumpDonald John TrumpBiden holds massive cash advantage over Trump ahead of Election Day Tax records show Trump maintains a Chinese bank account: NYT Trump plays video of Biden, Harris talking about fracking at Pennsylvania rally MORE is eager to “open” the nation back up and several states have begun taking steps to do so.

Members of the White House coronavirus task have often cited a 12-to-18-month timeframe for vaccine development, though some experts have called the administration’s timeline overly ambitious.

In the meantime, some Pentagon activities are resuming – with modifications for the virus.

For example, Esper's visit to Colorado was his first trip outside the D.C. region since lockdowns began. Esper was visiting the headquarters of U.S. Northern Command, which is tasked with leading the military’s assistance in fighting the virus inside the U.S..


Meanwhile, U.S. Army Europe announced this week a joint U.S.-Polish military exercise in June that had previously been delayed because of the pandemic. The drill has been modified “to ensure the safety of soldiers due to COVID-19,” according to a news release, which added that “all COVID-19 precautionary measures will be taken to ensure the health and protection of participating armed forces and the local population.”

The Pentagon has fiercely pushed back on criticism – fueled by the coronavirus outbreak aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt aircraft carrier – for how the department approached the balance between readiness and health when the virus began spreading.

Asked about balancing readiness with the health of the force until a vaccine is developed, under secretary of Defense for personnel and readiness Matthew Donovan told The Hill the Pentagon is focused on "protecting our people, safeguarding our national security capabilities and supporting our whole of nation response.

"We are successfully emplacing protocols to ensure the health and safety of our personnel, minimizing risk to the force by using a prioritized testing framework, in conjunction with measures such as isolation periods, social distancing, and other foundational hygiene practices," he said in a statement. "We continue to identify areas where changes in policy or guidance can positively impact the readiness of our force.”

Mark Cancian, a former defense official now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the military appears to have learned lessons from the “catastrophe” of the Roosevelt.

After the Roosevelt outbreak, the Navy began taking aggressive steps to prevent a replay on other ships, including sequestering sailors for 14 days ahead of deploying on other aircraft carriers. When a second deployed ship, the USS Kidd destroyer, was found to have coronavirus cases, it was quickly brought to port in San Diego to be cleaned.

“The key thing is, they are balancing readiness with the health of the force,” Cancian said.

“After the catastrophe with Roosevelt, they learned,” he added. “And the other services are applying that same model. The Marine Corps and the Army had stopped movement, including to places like Afghanistan and the Middle East, but they're now getting ready to start deploying and they're doing the same thing about the quarantining and testing.”

But the Roosevelt situation also points to the difficulty of resuming operations. This past week, the Navy revealed at least five sailors tested positive for the virus after returning to the ship from a quarantine on Guam. The sailors had twice tested negative before being allowed back on the ship.

“I think we would all acknowledge that this has been a learning process,” chief Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman said Friday. “It’s a stubborn disease. We’re learning a lot. We’re taking every step possible to get the ship fully clean and fully ready.”

Hoffman added the “good news” about the Roosevelt is that processes have been put in place, including testing, medical surveillance and contact tracing, to “quickly address the issue.”

Some military activities may not be able to return to pre-pandemic levels until there’s a vaccine. For example, basic training is operating at about a 50 percent capacity, which Cancian said is “probably about the best” military services can do “under the current conditions.”

While readiness has declined a bit since the pandemic began, Cancian said, the military has a cushion of readiness it previously built up it can rely on for now. But, he predicted, by six months into the crisis, the atrophy could be “serious.”


“It will start looking like the effects of sequestration in 2013,” he said. The Pentagon “had to stop a lot of training. What they cut was deeper than what you’re seeing today. But still, it took them years to dig themselves out of that hole.”

Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein has cited training as one of his top concerns amid the pandemic. Goldfein has set a target of June 1 for a “new reset” to operate in what he has termed “new abnormal” environment until a coronavirus vaccine is ready.

“All the predictions are no vaccine for upwards of a year, so that means we've got to refine our ability to survive and operate and do the missions the nation requires,” Goldfein told reporters in late April. “And we've got to bring back those missions that we slowed down, so we can get back to some kind of a sense of new normalcy in an abnormal world.”

While Goldfein said he does expect to get back to full capacity on training, he would like to see an increase above 50 percent capacity after the June 1 reset.

There’s also the matter of so-called no-fail missions such as the nuclear deterrent. In those critical missions, airmen have been separated into teams that are isolated from each other.

The Pentagon has also laid out a “tiered” plan for testing the most vital forces as it adjusts to the operating environment while testing supplies remain limited. The first tier includes those nuclear forces and other critical missions, the second tier is troops deployed to combat zones, the third is other troops abroad and those returning from overseas deployments, and the final tier is the rest of the force.


For the Pentagon itself, Esper said earlier this month the chief management officer was developing a plan to begin bringing people back into the building in “phases.”

On Friday, Hoffman said plans to bring people back from telework will rely on reopening plans from the local governments in D.C., Virginia and Maryland, citing considerations for the workforce such as public transportation, childcare and hospital capacity.

D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser has extended the district’s stay-at-home order to June 8. Much of Virginia and Maryland started reopening at the end of the week, but D.C. suburbs remain locked down.

A Pentagon-wide global stop-movement order is slated to expire June 30. The future of that, too, depends on different localities, Hoffman said.

“We can’t move somebody from California to South Carolina if the sending state has issues or if the receiving state does,” Hoffman said. “Like everybody else, we’re just trying to help flatten the curve and get to a place where we are in a better place to handle the outbreak.”