Overnight Defense: Pentagon steps up response to coronavirus | HHS to receive masks, ventilators | Military to open labs to virus testing | Outbreak adds to rising US, Iran tensions

Overnight Defense: Pentagon steps up response to coronavirus | HHS to receive masks, ventilators | Military to open labs to virus testing | Outbreak adds to rising US, Iran tensions
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Happy St. Patrick's Day and welcome to Overnight Defense. I'm Ellen Mitchell, and here's your nightly guide to the latest developments at the Pentagon, on Capitol Hill and beyond. CLICK HERE to subscribe to the newsletter.

 

THE TOPLINE: The coronavirus pandemic has prompted the Pentagon to start providing medical equipment to be used by civilian health facilities.

The Pentagon will give 5 million respirator masks and up to 2,000 deployable ventilators to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), Defense Secretary Mark EsperMark EsperPentagon orders active-duty police units on ready to deploy to Minneapolis: AP Overnight Defense: Trump extends deployment of National Guard troops to aid with coronavirus response | Pentagon considers reducing quarantine to 10 days | Lawmakers push for removal of Nazi headstones from VA cemeteries No time to be selling arms to the Philippines MORE said on Tuesday.

The caveat, Esper said, is that the ventilators are designed for use by deployed troops, require training to operate and may have single-use limitations.

But the Defense Department is "committed to supporting HHS's requirements in any way we can," he added.

A shortage and a call to help: State officials facing a shortage of masks and ventilators have increasingly asked Washington for help getting supplies to protect health care workers and treat patients with COVID-19.

Hospitals are quickly using up their stockpiles of masks for health workers, called N95 respirators, and are also worried they won't have enough ventilators for the expected surge of patients in the coming weeks and months as the coronavirus outbreak worsens. 

State and federal officials are also increasingly calling on the Pentagon to make resources available, with New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) on Sunday writing an op-ed in The New York Times asking for the military to have the Army Corps of Engineers build hospitals to relieve overburdened civilian hospitals. 

Other efforts: The Pentagon chief -- who on Monday held two meetings with Department of Defense (DOD) senior civilian and military officials and briefed Vice President Pence and HHS Secretary Alex Azar on the support efforts -- said DOD is also opening its 14 certified coronavirus testing labs to test nonmilitary personnel, with two additional labs soon available. 

DOD is also considering activating additional National Guard and Reserve units "to assist states with planning, logistics and medical support as needed."

So far, nearly 1,500 Guard members have been activated in 18 states in response to the virus.

In addition, Esper said that he and other top DOD officials will speak with state and local leaders to see if field hospitals are needed.

Another exercise canceled: U.S. Africa Command for the second time in a week canceled a multinational military exercise on the continent after initially announcing that the drill would be scaled back due to coronavirus concerns.

Exercise Phoenix Express 2020 was canceled "for force protection considerations," Africom said in a statement on Tuesday.

It added that the decision not to continue with the war game "comes in response to the global effort to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19), while minimizing exposure of U.S. and partner nation service members to this virus." 

Africom on Monday also canceled its largest exercise on the continent, African Lion 2020, which was set to take place from March 23 to April 4 in Morocco, Tunisia, and Senegal and involve nearly 9,000 troops -- including more than 4,000 U.S. service members. 

The numbers now: So far, 18 U.S. service members have tested positive for coronavirus, as have 13 dependents, three civilians and three contractors. 

And lawmakers want Navy hospital ship: A quartet of House lawmakers from New York is asking President TrumpDonald John TrumpFauci says his meetings with Trump have 'dramatically decreased' McEnany criticizes DC mayor for not imposing earlier curfew amid protests Stopping Israel's annexation is a US national security interest MORE to deploy a Navy hospital ship to New York City to treat noncoronavirus patients as hospitals become slammed with patients suffering from the virus.

"We write to ask that you immediately ready the naval hospital ship USNS Comfort, currently being refitted in Norfolk, VA for deployment to New York City in support of our city's fight against the novel coronavirus pandemic," the lawmakers wrote to Trump and Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Michael Gilday.

The letter was signed by Democratic New York Reps. Max RoseMax RoseGun control group rolls out House endorsements Max Rose calls on Trump to use Defense Production Act to ensure small businesses have PPE 125 lawmakers urge Trump administration to support National Guard troops amid pandemic MORE, José Serrano, Tom Suozzi and Nydia Velázquez.

At the Pentagon news conference Tuesday, Esper said the Pentagon already ordered the Navy a few days ago to "lean forward" on preparing to deploy the hospital ships.

Esper stressed that the ships are equipped for trauma not infectious diseases, but that they could be helpful to take noncoronavirus cases from civilian hospitals.

 

CORONAVIRUS ADDS NEW ELEMENT TO RISING US-IRAN TENSIONS: Tensions between the U.S. and Iran are escalating in a pattern similar to the one that brought the two sides to the brink of war earlier this year -- but with one key difference.

This time around, both countries are focusing on the coronavirus pandemic, and that could affect how the situation plays out in the Middle East.

Iran is battling the region's worst outbreak of the deadly virus. The U.S. military is arguing that could make Iran more dangerous as it looks outward to distract from its coronavirus crisis.

But others contend the situation could make Tehran less likely to lash out at its longtime adversary as its attention is consumed by fighting the virus.

"Certainly, the U.S. and Iranian preoccupation with coronavirus means that there simply may not be enough attention for this issue," said Behnam Ben Taleblu, a senior fellow at the hawkish Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. "The preoccupation is going to necessarily be the public health crisis."

A worsening problem: As of Monday, Iran said it had 14,991 coronavirus cases and 853 deaths from the virus that's also known as COVID-19. Several Iranian officials have contracted the disease and some have died as a result.

U.S. and international officials, however, have said Iran is likely underreporting the number of illnesses it has.

Still, the official leading Iran's response to the virus acknowledged Sunday that the country's health system could be overwhelmed.

"If the trend continues, there will not be enough capacity," Ali Reza Zali was quoted as saying by the state-run IRNA news agency.

US forces in the middle: Amid the outbreak, the United States and an Iranian-backed militia are in the middle of a tit-for-tat in Iraq.

On Wednesday, a rocket attack that American officials blamed on the Iranian-backed Kataib Hezbollah killed two U.S. troops and a British service member at Iraq's Camp Taji military base.

The U.S. military responded a day later with airstrikes on five Kataib Hezbollah sites that officials said the group was using as weapons storage facilities.

On Saturday, the U.S. military reported another rocket attack at Camp Taji that injured three U.S. troops and two Iraqi troops.

But risk for war low: After Wednesday's rocket attack, the political risk consultancy Eurasia Group put the odds of war "low, at 25 percent" because of "the fundamental reality that neither the US nor Iran is interested in war right now."

"That is doubly true for Iran, grappling with a proliferation of coronavirus cases that has paralyzed the country," the firm said in a note to clients and the media.

Earlier: Last week's military exchange has echoes of events in late December and early January that saw the United States and Iran teeter on the brink of war.

At the time, U.S. officials blamed Kataib Hezbollah for a rocket attack that struck a base near Kirkuk, killing an American contractor and wounding four U.S. service members.

The U.S. military responded to the December attack by striking five Kataib Hezbollah targets in Iraq and Syria. That led to supporters of the militia storming the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.

That, in turn, was followed by a U.S. drone strike that killed Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani. Iran retaliated with a missile strike that led to brain injuries for more than 100 service members.

The United States did not return fire after that missile attack, as both sides sought to step back from the brink. Since then, tensions appear to have simmered.

 

ICYMI

-- The Hill: US military commander tests negative for coronavirus after meeting with Brazilians

-- The Hill: Health groups vulnerable to cyberattacks as coronavirus crisis ramps up

-- The Hill: EU leaders agree to close external borders

-- The Hill: Opinion: Coronavirus unmasks America's real national security vulnerabilities

-- The Hill: Opinion: Coronavirus pandemic illustrates the need to maintain a strong VA

-- Defense News: Congressional chairmen hope virus won't derail defense policy bill

-- The Washington Post: Pentagon rejects proposals from military officials to stop training new recruits amid coronavirus response