Report

Pentagon Worries Social Distancing Could Impede America’s Deterrent

The U.S. military confronts a trade-off between maintaining readiness for war and the health of its service members.

By , Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter.
Military soldiers follow social distancing guidelines as they meet while setting up a field hospital at CenturyLink Event Center on March 31, in Seattle, Washington.
U.S. soldiers follow social distancing guidelines as they meet while setting up a field hospital at the CenturyLink Field Event Center in Seattle on March 31. Karen Ducey/Getty Images

The U.S. military is chafing at social distancing guidelines for the coronavirus pandemic, in some cases ordering pilots and troops back to their posts, as the Defense Department grapples with a trade-off between war readiness and the health of service members. 

In the wake of the death of a crew member of the virus-stricken USS Theodore Roosevelt this week, Defense Secretary Mark Esper acknowledged that not all commanders would be able to follow the social distancing guidelines set out by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, even as the Pentagon chief said the agency’s stop-movement order would be extended beyond mid-May. 

The U.S. military is chafing at social distancing guidelines for the coronavirus pandemic, in some cases ordering pilots and troops back to their posts, as the Defense Department grapples with a trade-off between war readiness and the health of service members. 

In the wake of the death of a crew member of the virus-stricken USS Theodore Roosevelt this week, Defense Secretary Mark Esper acknowledged that not all commanders would be able to follow the social distancing guidelines set out by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, even as the Pentagon chief said the agency’s stop-movement order would be extended beyond mid-May. 

Though the debate over the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, which spilled out into the public after a warning from the Roosevelt’s skipper leaked in the San Francisco Chronicle this month, has taken center stage in the military’s response to the coronavirus, the idea of U.S. troops going back to barracks, ships, submarines, tanks, and other installations where the Pentagon stages and fights from close quarters has service members and families concerned for their health and safety. The military is heavily dependent on close quartering of troops to execute its missions, from bringing soldiers into barracks for basic training to crews aboard nuclear-capable stealth bombers. 

“The military is not going to clamp down and distance as much as normal society because they can’t,” said Thomas Spoehr, the director of the Heritage Foundation’s Center for National Defense and a retired U.S. Army lieutenant general. 

At Fort Rucker in Alabama, home to the Army’s top aviation school, commander Maj. Gen. David J. Francis is ordering pilots back into simulators and cockpits for basic rotary wing training on Monday, even as the number of coronavirus cases has risen to more than 4,300 statewide. 

The order has provoked some negative reaction. “Why are they putting these lives at risk?” said one family member of a soldier at Fort Rucker, speaking anonymously to avoid retribution. “It’s not part of their duty at this point. It makes no sense to me.” 

The directive was sent to company commanders on the base on Wednesday, two family members told Foreign Policy, though it will still require troops to maintain as much social distancing as possible and stay in groups of 10 or fewer. Trainees in the cockpit will be required to wear flight-approved personal protective equipment. 

“I ordered a halt to our Initial Entry Rotary Wing flight training during the projected peak in our area for COVID-19 cases. This was intended as only a temporary pause—to afford us an opportunity to get our COVID-19 testing capability stood up here locally, to enable us to properly clean our aircraft and simulators, and set conditions to resume flight training as soon as possible,” Francis told Foreign Policy in a statement. “We have measures in place in the cockpit and simulators including through the use of approved masks. I am extremely proud of the hard work our team has done to set conditions to resume training.”

Yet provisions of supplies to troops remain limited—as is the case throughout the armed forces. Another family member of a soldier on the base said units recommended wearing neck gaiters in place of a mask. “The Army is not providing them,” the source said. “Most people are relying on volunteers.” Uniform standards have further complicated the problem, the source added, “because most people don’t have uniform-compliant fabric.”

Fort Rucker has paused aviation training since April 2, after Esper ordered U.S. military units to freeze movement for 60 days, an order that the Pentagon plans to extend. The resumption of training at Fort Rucker follows the expiration of the Army’s freeze on basic training on Monday.

The Pentagon has ordered local installations to stop publicly reporting coronavirus cases, citing operational security, angering some family members who are desperate for details about the impact of the disease. Even Esper acknowledged in a Pentagon press conference on Tuesday that the Defense Department will have difficulty balancing social distancing mandates and training measures. 

Restrictions on training and imposing severe travel restrictions will be increasingly challenged as commanders face a difficult trade-off between preparing for a potential war with China or Russia and protecting the health of their troops, even without a vaccine.

Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy said Thursday that the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research had selected three vaccine types for COVID-19, eyeing a summer date for testing on humans. As a small outbreak of the disease has ensnared some 50 soldiers at Fort Jackson in South Carolina, military officials insist they can continue training new soldiers by creating “safety bubbles” that put distance between units and limit exposure.

“We’ll manage the risk. We don’t have a vaccination right now, and we’re training soldiers,” Army Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville told Foreign Policy at a Pentagon press briefing on Thursday. “We need to make sure that our army is ready to go to war.” 

A defense official told Foreign Policy that once Esper finalizes a stop-movement date for the U.S. military, the Army will do an analysis on how to conduct training until the freeze ends and efforts to mitigate impacts on readiness. 

The Army is currently allowed to do training as long as the proper protocols are observed, such as wearing face masks and keeping 6 feet of distance, the official added. Some former military officials think it will be hard for the military to wait much longer to resume the normal pace of training, including at the Army’s National Training Center at Fort Irwin in California. 

“Everything you do as a commander, especially in combat or an operation, is about balancing risks,” Sean MacFarland, a retired lieutenant general and a former deputy commander of the Army’s Training and Doctrine Command, told Foreign Policy. “It would be difficult to wait for the vaccine to come online before we wait to resume some activity.”

In just over a month, the U.S. military has made drastic changes in its operations as the virus has infected nearly 2,900 U.S. troops and left 19 service members, contractors, civilians, and family dead, according to Defense Department statistics released on Thursday. 

The Pentagon has halted port calls. In the wake of the coronavirus outbreak on the USS Theodore Roosevelt that eventually prompted acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly to resign this month, the Defense Department has ordered the USS Harry S. Truman to remain at sea until its replacement, the USS Nimitz, is ready to set sail. 

“There’s not going to be these giant groups of exercises,” Spoehr said. “Ships are going to self-quarantine for 14 days before you go to sea. Once you set out, you’re like a little island until you come back.” 

The Pentagon is already organizing a debriefing from the pandemic to codify the lessons it has learned to face another outbreak in the future, Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said on Tuesday. 

“It’s not going to be business as usual,” Milley said. “We’ve got to take a hard look at how we as a military, we as a Department of Defense, conduct operations in the future.” The Defense Department’s testing regimen will prioritize groups in tighter quarters, such as submarine and bomber crews and basic trainees.

But much of military culture isn’t designed to support U.S. government guidance to fight the coronavirus centered on maintaining a 6-foot distance from most people. When asked about a viral video of U.S. Marines appearing to break social distancing guidance while lining up for haircuts at Camp Pendleton in California, Milley said he supported continuing haircuts through the pandemic. The classic “high and tight” look promotes discipline, the top U.S. military officer said, similar to that which was necessary for U.S. Marines to storm the beaches at Iwo Jima, Japan, during World War II. “It may seem superficial to some, but getting a haircut is part of that discipline,” Milley told reporters. 

Elsewhere, top Defense Department officials pushed back against the notion that the agency should have more centralized guidance for far-flung commanders trying to fight the pandemic. 

In the wake of highly praised efforts to fight the coronavirus by U.S. forces in South Korea and Africa this year, Esper has delegated major decisions to U.S. Northern Command and local commanders, who officials insist are better equipped to understand local needs. 

“I know Secretary Esper is very interested in delegating authority down to the lowest possible level because these are the commanders that are on the ground,” said Matthew Donovan, who took over last month as the Defense Department’s undersecretary for personnel and readiness. “They have the best situational awareness of the needs of their local installations.”

Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch

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