Overnight Defense: 'Tens of thousands' of National Guard troops could be activated for coronavirus response | Hospital ships could take week to deploy | Trump says military to help Americans stuck in Peru

Overnight Defense: 'Tens of thousands' of National Guard troops could be activated for coronavirus response | Hospital ships could take week to deploy | Trump says military to help Americans stuck in Peru
© Getty Images

Happy Thursday 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: Tens of thousands of National Guard troops could be activated in states across the country in the next several weeks to help deal with the coronavirus pandemic, the head of the National Guard said Thursday.

"It's hard to tell what the exact requirement will be, but I'm expecting tens of thousands to be used inside the states as this grows," National Guard Bureau Chief Gen. Joseph Lengyel told reporters at the Pentagon.

"I think that this could quickly blossom in the next couple of weeks as governors and states determine their needs and ways to use their National Guards."

By the numbers: All 54 states, territories and the District of Columbia have declared a state of emergency in response to the COVID-19 outbreak. 

As of Thursday, governors in 27 states have activated a total 2,050 Guardsmen. 

Lengyel said the bureau anticipates that number will go up "relatively quickly, in fact, doubling by this weekend."

Guard to be federalized?: Asked if the White House could federalize the Guard to respond to the illness, Lengyel said that President TrumpDonald John TrumpBiden leads Trump by 36 points nationally among Latinos: poll Trump dismisses climate change role in fires, says Newsom needs to manage forest better Jimmy Kimmel hits Trump for rallies while hosting Emmy Awards MORE could do so if desired but that such a move "would not make sense in this situation."

"Every state has a different way to deal with disasters. If you were to federalize [the Guard], you would lose that ability."

He added: "There's no plans that I'm aware of to take the National Guards in the states and put them in a federal status. They're much better used in a state status under the command and control of the governors."

Mounting roles: Lengyel likened the coronavirus pandemic to dealing with "54 separate hurricanes in every state, territory and the District of Columbia ... unlike a hurricane we don't know when this is going to dissipate or move out to sea."

Currently the Guard is providing medical testing and assessments, facilities, ground transportation and logistics and planning, among other services across the states.  

The Tennessee National Guard, for example, on Wednesday helped deliver 500,000 coronavirus testing swabs brought to the United States from Italy earlier this week.

Ship deployment timeline: Two Navy hospital ships will not deploy for at least another week or more to help relieve hospital systems overwhelmed by the influx of new coronavirus cases in New York City and the West Coast, defense officials confirmed on Thursday. 

The Trump administration on Wednesday announced that the USNS Mercy and USNS Comfort are preparing to deploy to help take on patients not infected by COVID-19 and free up hospitals to treat those that have the virus.

But the Defense Department is five to ten days from deploying the Mercy from its home port in San Diego to an undisclosed location on the West Coast, Pentagon spokesman Army Lt. Col. Chris Mitchell said in a statement to The Hill.

And the Comfort, which is currently undergoing maintenance, will be "ready to sail to New York in about two weeks' time," he added.  

An undetermined location: CNN reported on Thursday that Mercy is expected to head to the Seattle area – which has been one of the hardest hit U.S. locations for the virus – though defense officials would not confirm the location to reporters

"The location for Mercy has not been determined but I can tell you that the goal is to have Mercy sailing out of San Diego harbor next week," Navy surgeon general Rear Adm. Bruce Gillingham told reporters at the Pentagon via teleconference.

He added that the ships' core staff reported Thursday to ready the vessels, and that the service is currently working with the Defense Health Agency to identify where the rest of the medical staff will come from to serve on the ships. 


DEM BILL WOULD SEND CORONAVIRUS TESTS TO TROOPS IN MIDDLE EAST: A pair of lawmakers on Thursday introduced bicameral legislation to send coronavirus testing kits to U.S. troops in the Middle East.

Sen. Tammy BaldwinTammy Suzanne BaldwinKeep teachers in the classroom Cher raised million for Biden campaign at LGBTQ-themed fundraiser Democrats seek balance in backing protests, condemning violence MORE and Rep. Mark PocanMark William PocanClark rolls out endorsements in assistant Speaker race Hillicon Valley: Pentagon reaffirms decision to award JEDI contract to Microsoft | Schiff asks officials for briefing on election security threats Democrats explore new ways to resurrect election security briefings MORE, both Wisconsin Democrats, introduced the bill after the Pentagon said testing for troops in Afghanistan is being completed at labs in Germany.

"It is unacceptable that testing kits aren't immediately and readily available for service members in the Middle East where there are confirmed cases of COVID-19 and this legislation will fix that," Baldwin said in a statement. "We owe it to our men and women in uniform to protect their health while they are working to protect our national security."

What the bill requires: The bill would require coronavirus tests be made available to troops in the U.S. Central Command area of responsibility within seven days after it is signed into law.

DOD response: Pentagon officials have pushed back on the characterization that troops in Afghanistan do not have access to testing.

While the equipment to analyze coronavirus tests is not in Afghanistan, they have said, troops can be swabbed in the country. The samples are then sent to a U.S. military lab in Germany or to other certified civilian testing facilities.

Earlier: Baldwin and Pocan raised concerns earlier about a lack of testing for troops in Afghanistan after being contacted by Wisconsin military families, sending letters last week to Pentagon officials like Defense Secretary Mark EsperMark EsperTop admiral: 'No condition' where US should conduct nuclear test 'at this time' Overnight Defense: Trump hosts Israel, UAE, Bahrain for historic signing l Air Force reveals it secretly built and flew new fighter jet l Coronavirus creates delay in Pentagon research for alternative to 'forever chemicals' Oldest living US World War II veteran turns 111 MORE.

In a statement Thursday, Pocan said he is "increasingly less confident" the Pentagon is prioritizing service members' health, adding that he and Baldwin "cannot wait for Pentagon inaction any longer."


PENTAGON TO THE RESCUE IN PERU?: Trump on Thursday said the military is helping to get Americans stuck in Peru back to the U.S., as more than 1,400 U.S. citizens remain stuck in the country under a strict quarantine to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

"We have a group of young people in Peru and we're working on taking care of that with the military," the president said in a press briefing at the White House.

The president said the efforts are "not an evacuation" but that the U.S. is "trying to get them out."

The Peruvian government on Monday instituted a two-week quarantine across the country, closing all land, sea and airports. Americans traveling in the country say they received last-minute notification, had flights canceled without notice and were unable to rebook flights.

The blame game: The more than 1,400 Americans in the country have organized over social media and in a spreadsheet to raise awareness of their plight. Americans stuck in Peru who have spoken with The Hill say they've received little to no guidance from the U.S. embassy, which has told them to contact their airlines to reschedule flights and check the embassy website for updates.

Trump on Thursday said the Americans carry the blame for being stuck in the country but pledged that the U.S. would help get them home.

"They got caught, they were late with their flights, we gave them a period of time, they didn't make it, but we're looking to get them out probably through the military."

Pentagon out of the loop: But the Department of Defense says they have yet to receive any instructions.

In response to an inquiry from The Hill, Department of Defense spokesman LTC Chris Mitchell said the agency had received no requests for assistance in connection with Peru and evacuating Americans there.

Elsewhere in the world: Americans in Morocco are also pleading with the U.S. government to help them get out of that country. The U.S. Embassy encouraged Americans to try booking flights on European carriers flying "emergency" flights to London. Yet Americans are posting on Twitter that they are unable to book the flights and that the airport is overcrowded.

The president on Thursday did not mention the Americans stuck in Morocco, nor other countries like Tunisia, Kuwait or Honduras where U.S. citizens stuck behind border closures have appealed for assistance.

"We have a group of young people, I think young men, or young people, could be women also with them, from Alabama, great state of Alabama, and they are in Peru," the president said. "And we're working on that right now. It's a large group, it's probably about 300."

It's unclear which group the president was referring to. At least six residents of Alabama are in a group of 20 medical professionals in the country on a mission trip. They are among the more than 1,400 Americans from 47 states, Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C., stuck in the country.



-- The Hill: Boeing pleads for bailout under weight of coronavirus, 737 fallout

-- The Hill: White House scraps G-7 summit in favor of videoconference due to coronavirus

-- The Hill: Iran grants medical furlough to imprisoned US Navy veteran amid coronavirus outbreak

-- The Hill: Nikki HaleyNimrata (Nikki) Haley'The soul' versus 'law and order' Author Ryan Girdusky: RNC worked best when highlighting 'regular people' as opposed to 'standard Republicans' GOP lobbyists pleasantly surprised by Republican convention MORE resigns from Boeing board, cites opposition to bailout

-- The Hill: State Department urges US citizens to avoid all international travel

-- The Hill: Textron to furlough 7,000 workers as aviation industry takes hit from coronavirus