Pentagon grapples with coronavirus outbreak

Pentagon grapples with coronavirus outbreak
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The U.S. military is grappling with the coronavirus pandemic, as service members seek to provide aid and protect themselves from infection.

The Department of Defense is engaging in a balancing act, deploying field hospitals to different cities facing severe outbreaks, while scaling back operations elsewhere. Military leaders said Tuesday that 227 service members tested positive for COVID-19, and thousands of others in the U.S. and abroad are being monitored for potential exposure.

While the number of service members with the virus is relatively low, the military has still imposed tight restrictions as a precaution, scaling back on training new recruits, closing in-person recruiting centers, postponing major military exercises with allies and limiting travel.

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Military leaders and experts both say the Pentagon could take other measures if the virus spreads further among service members, raising questions about whether readiness could be affected.

“If this pandemic continues at the scale and scope of what some are predicting, over time you could start seeing an impact on readiness ... But nothing to which I fear impacts our mission readiness to conduct our national missions,” Defense Secretary Mark EsperMark EsperTrump marks Memorial Day at Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, Fort McHenry Pentagon charts its own course on COVID-19, risking Trump's ire Birx: 'I'm very concerned when people go out and don't maintain social distancing' MORE said Monday.

Mark Cancian, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies’s International Security Program, said he believes the virus outbreak would “absolutely” have an effect on military preparedness, pointing to the reduction of training and exercises.

“You've already seen that the military is canceling or reducing exercises,” Cancian told The Hill. “Now, the military has a large reservoir of scale skills so it's not a question of those skills disappearing overnight, but they will gradually deteriorate as this thing goes on longer."

Cancian also said the crisis could make it “much more difficult to recruit.”

Other experts predicted the coronavirus would not take a heavy toll on preparedness.

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“Unless this happened to many [or] all units all at once, it is hard to see it materially affecting U.S. military readiness in a way that could weaken deterrence,” said Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow in foreign policy at the Brookings Institution. 

“We’ll need some way to reduce some activities by summer [or] fall. Until then, the disruptions will either be of limited effect on readiness or of limited quantitative magnitude given the number of people involved,” he said.

Top military officials have predicted the outbreak could last months as the number of impacted service members rises.

“I think we need to plan for this to be a few months long, at least, and we're taking all precautionary measures to do that,” Esper said Tuesday during a virtual town hall meeting.

As of Wednesday, the Pentagon had identified more than 500 coronavirus cases in the military, including 227 service members, 81 civilian employees, 67 family members and 40 contractors.

The numbers had jumped since Tuesday, when there were 300 coronavirus cases in the military.

The Pentagon on Wednesday also reported its first positive internal case of a personnel member who works inside the building becoming infected with COVID-19, according to Defense One.

As many as five sailors on the USS Theodore Roosevelt have tested positive for the virus.

And a contractor for the Defense Security Cooperation Agency on Saturday became the first military personnel to die as a result of the virus, the Pentagon announced Sunday.

Esper on Wednesday signed an order putting a 60-day hold on troop movements, CNN reported.

As it handles an increased caseload, the military is being asked to help out at home. It has mobilized to provide medical assistance, and is distributing masks and other key equipment across the country.

President TrumpDonald John TrumpMulvaney: 'We've overreacted a little bit' to coronavirus Former CBS News president: Most major cable news outlets 'unrelentingly liberal' in 'fear and loathing' of Trump An old man like me should be made more vulnerable to death by COVID-19 MORE sent a U.S. Navy hospital ship, the USNS Comfort, to New York City, the epicenter of the virus in the nation. The ship will help treat non-coronavirus patients as hospitals on land face a growing burden of cases.

The USNS Mercy, which left San Diego, is also expected to soon arrive at the port of Los Angeles to similarly help alleviate patients from inundated hospitals. Esper has said he is looking at dispatching other ships to serve as field hospitals in places like Seattle, which has also been hit hard.

Thousands of National Guard troops have been activated, with Trump sending forces to help New York, California and Washington.

Experts say if the situation escalates, the role of the military could grow. 

“I think the military may gently enforce quarantines and also do things like help provide for the neediest with deliveries, etc., if need be,” O’Hanlon said, adding that would only be if things “get substantially worse.”

Questions are being raised over how involved the Pentagon should be in a domestic crisis.

The military helped relief efforts after Hurricane Katrina and has been sent to the southern border, but deploying the military at this scale to help with a virus is a new frontier.

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“We're at the front edge of what is going to be a very large effort,” said Cancian, who added that the military didn’t play a big role in the Spanish flu outbreak of 1918.

But prominent politicians have expressed optimism that further involvement will help in responding to the outbreak.

“The military has extraordinary medical capacity of its own that has been honed in fighting wars,” New York Mayor Bill de BlasioBill de BlasioWoman apologizes after video goes viral of her calling police on black birdwatcher in Central Park De Blasio: 2 million people in New York City face food insecurity amid pandemic Trump calls study on taking earlier action against coronavirus a 'political hit job' MORE said Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

“They can handle any situation. All the great personnel who are medically trained should be sent to places where this crisis is deep — like New York — right now,” he said.

Experts and lawmakers both say the U.S. must ensure that the military does not lose sight of its adversaries abroad as it fights an unseen enemy at home.
 
"The real challenge we have is to adequately signal to our adversaries that we haven't diverted our attention. We are capable and determined to defend our national interest," Rep. Chris StewartChristopher (Chris) Douglas StewartHouse GOP to launch China probes beyond COVID-19 Justice Dept. reviewing if hate crime charges should be filed in Ahmaud Arbery shooting McCarthy unveils new GOP-led China task force MORE (R-Utah) told The Hill.