Until recently, Americans might easily have gotten the impression that their government was unconcerned about the effects of COVID-19. After all, as late as March 10, President Donald Trump said about the virus outbreak, “And we’re prepared, and we’re doing a great job with it. And it will go away. Just stay calm. It will go away.” The next day, the World Health Organization (WHO), which had already declared the virus a “Public Health Emergency of International Concern,” declared it a global pandemic. Despite the President’s lack of concern, elsewhere in the executive branch of the U.S. government, work had already been underway for over a month to prepare for a large COVID-19 outbreak in the United States.
In the Department of Defense (DOD), the first official order from the Pentagon related to the virus was published on February 1. This order was followed by additional orders and guidance at all levels of the DOD, directing units to plan for a large-scale disease outbreak. DOD efforts have been focused on three objectives: protect the force, protect the nation, and support other U.S. government efforts to combat the disease.
Protect the Force
Immediately after the WHO declaration of a global pandemic, the Pentagon instituted social distancing measures. It limited in-person meetings to no more than six people, directed the use of only large meeting rooms to allow separation among participants, authorized telework for those able to do so, and cancelled visits to the Pentagon from outside agencies. A day later, the DOD issued a “stop move order,” the most comprehensive and restrictive that I have seen in almost 32 years of working in the Defense Department, that ordered all DOD employees to remain in their local areas. It cancelled work-related travel, family moves, and vacations. On March 17, the U.S. Army War College, where I am a faculty-member, went fully online for the delivery of classes.
The Defense Department has two advantages that allowed it to get ahead of the curve in terms of responding to COVID-19. The first of these is a culture that emphasizes planning and preparedness—as noted, the first DOD orders on COVID-19 were published on February 1, and these directed all units to update their standing pandemic preparedness plans to respond to the emerging threat. The second advantage the DOD has is a high level of control over its people, something not available to most civilian government agencies. The DOD’s stop-move order went into effect on March 13, a full week before governments in even the hardest hit U.S. states and cities began to request that people limit their movement.
Of course, the work of the DOD can’t stop. There are critical national security functions that it still has to perform. Ships still need to sail, aircraft still need to fly, and soldiers still need to patrol global hot spots. Currently, four U.S. aircraft carriers and their associated strike groups are patrolling the oceans, U.S. Marine Corps amphibious strike groups are afloat, and some 67,000 U.S. Air Force and 155,000 U.S. Army personnel are stationed overseas.
Maintaining this level of activity requires exceptions to the DOD’s COVID-19 response measures. As Defense Secretary Mark Esper said in a March 23 press conference, the DOD issues general guidance and trusts local commanders to implement it as appropriate to their situations and missions. This raises the risk that COVID-19 will spread more widely in the U.S. military than it otherwise would have, but accepting prudent risk and putting collective interests above self-interest are concepts that are inculcated into members of the military early in their careers.
Protect the Nation
Accepting these risks allows the Department of Defense to maintain its core function of protecting the nation, even as it responds to the worst pandemic in living memory. So critical national security activities—from deterring Russia in the Baltics, to combat operations in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and other places—continue. Less critical functions, such as exercises, are being modified or curtailed.
The biggest of these, Defender Europe 2020, has been scaled back. This exercise originally envisioned deploying some 20,000 U.S. forces to Europe between February and May to “build strategic readiness by deploying a combat credible force to Europe in support of NATO and the U.S. National Defense Strategy.” In response to the DOD stop move order, all deployments ceased on March 13. The 6,000 U.S. forces that deployed to Europe before that date will remain there to conduct training with NATO allies as part of a reduced-scale exercise.
There is a cost to this, of course, and the longer the current pandemic lasts, the more significant will be the accumulating impact of training not done. But a global pandemic should be an equal-opportunity scourge: it should affect the military readiness of America’s primary military rivals as much as it affects our own. As The Economist noted recently, “Armies across the world are temporarily putting down their guns and playing a frontline role in the war against the virus.” In the best case, sharing best practices among military forces engaged in fighting COVID-19 could allow for needed dialogue between the United States and some of its military rivals, particularly China and Russia.
Support Other U.S. Government Efforts
Perhaps the most visible and—in the near term—important contribution of the DOD is supporting the overall U.S. government response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The U.S. military has planning, logistical, medical, and construction capabilities that may be critical to helping the hardest-hit areas. The Pentagon has ordered the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to begin converting hotels, dormitories, and other suitable buildings into temporary medical facilities. It has also ordered two U.S. Navy hospital ships to prepare to assist in the response to the outbreak. The USNS Mercy will sail to Los Angeles in the next several days, where it will receive non-COVID-19 patients, to allow on-shore hospitals to preserve bed space for the sickest coronavirus patients. Within the next two weeks, the USNS Comfort is expected to be stationed off New York City with the same function. Five U.S. Army mobile medical units have been alerted to deploy, and are expected to be sent to Seattle, New York City, and other locations with large disease outbreaks.
Already, some 7,000 National Guard members have been mobilized in all U.S. states and territories, where they will assist state and local efforts to fight COVID-19. The DOD is also housing some 1,400 passengers from cruise ships that had coronavirus outbreaks and will release five million N-95 masks and 2,000 portable ventilators to the Department of Health and Human Services. Finally, the Department has offered to do coronavirus testing in its six laboratories capable of doing so, with a total capacity to run 6,000 tests per day. But, as is the case elsewhere in the United States, availability of test kits has lowered the number of tests that the labs are actually performing.
Is Italy Our Future?
As Italy’s experience shows, a delayed national-level response to a COVID-19 outbreak can have catastrophic effects, even once the entire resources of the national government are marshalled in the fight. On March 21, deaths in Italy surpassed those in China, where the virus originated. The Italian Army has been pressed into service using its trucks to transport the bodies of the dead to morgues. Italy’s experience and clear warnings from medical experts of the seriousness of COVID-19 should be enough to spur any government into action.
After all, the data currently available indicate that COVID-19 is more easily transmitted, results in longer hospital stays, and has a higher death rate than seasonal influenza. Despite this, and despite the efforts ongoing in the Department of Defense and across the U.S. government to respond, there persists in some circles the belief that containing the COVID-19 outbreak is not worth the disruption to our daily routines. This perception can be seen from crowds gathered on beaches and in parks despite clear guidance to avoid doing so, all the way to the President’s Twitter account, where he recently tweeted, “WE CANNOT LET THE CURE BE WORSE THAN THE PROBLEM ITSELF. AT THE END OF THE 15 DAY PERIOD, WE WILL MAKE A DECISION AS TO WHICH WAY WE WANT TO GO!”
We may never know if we go too far in our efforts to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, but we will certainly know if we don’t go far enough.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, the U.S. Government, or the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.