WASHINGTON — The U.S. military is bracing for a months-long struggle against the coronavirus, looking for novel ways to maintain a defensive crouch that sustains troops' health without breaking their morale — while still protecting the nation.
Unlike talk in the Trump administration of possibly reopening the country as early as May, military leaders are suggesting that this summer may be the best-case scenario of tiptoeing toward a return to normal activities. Even that is uncertain, and for now, the focus is on adjusting as the pandemic threat evolves.
“We are going to need to change and adapt because even over the coming months the virus isn’t going to go away. We’re going to have to be able to operate in a COVID environment,” Deputy Defense Secretary David Norquist said recently, referring to the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.
Officials have frozen most forces in place overseas, stopped troops and their families from moving to new assignments, and cut back access to the Pentagon. The military services have halted or restricted recruit training canceled major exercises and isolated troops in the most sensitive units. The new Space Force has delayed a satellite launch, and the Navy this week postponed the return of the USS Harry S. Truman, keeping the aircraft carrier at sea to shield its crew from virus exposure at home.
These steps to protect the force have parallels in civilian society, but a far-flung military can't function by staying at home.
“This will be a new way of doing business that we have to focus in on,” says Air Force Gen. John Hyten, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. “We’re adjusting to that new world as we speak today.”
The notion of “normal” in the military may never be the same.
“We’ve all deployed and fought enemies abroad, however, today’s enemy is here in our communities,” said Lt. Gen. Brad Webb, commander of the Air Force’s training and education command. “We don’t know what ‘new normal’ will look like until we get to the other side.”
Defense Secretary Mark Esper has been consistent in saying it will take time to determine when to begin lifting restrictions on the military, and he has faced little public pressure — from military families or the White House — to rush things. In civilian society, there is an open split between those like President Donald Trump who want the country reopened soon to mitigate economic damage and those, including many state governors, who fear reopening prematurely will undermine progress against the virus.
Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the pandemic has spread so far and wide, potentially creating instability in some countries, that the U.S. military cannot return to business as usual.
“We have got to take a hard look at how we as a military, we as a Department of Defense, conduct operations in the future,” he said.
In a further sign of uncertainty, Esper said Tuesday that he will extend a “stop movement” order halting what are called permanent-change-of-station moves by troops and their families. He did not say how long he will extend the order, aimed at protecting troops and originally set to expire May 11. If it continues into the summer, military members with children could face serious hardship, since they need time to settle and enroll their children in new schools.
Coronavirus has been less deadly in the military than in the rest of American society, but the number of confirmed cases is still rising. As of Tuesday, the total exceeded 2,600, up from 1,521 a week earlier. Two troops have died of the disease — a National Guard member in March and a Navy sailor on Monday.
Even after the number of the military's coronavirus cases crests, a degree of uncertainty about restoring normalcy will linger. The Navy’s top doctor, Rear Adm. Bruce Gillingham, says the virus wields a “secret power” that the military must take into account as it adjusts in the weeks and months ahead.
“What we’ve learned, certainly in the Navy with regard to COVID-19, (is) that stealth, in the form of asymptomatic transmission, is this adversary’s secret power,” he told reporters. “And so we recognize that despite really our best efforts, we’re going to have to learn how to operate with the virus.”
Webb, the Air Force training commander, said his service is doing about 99% of its recruiting online rather than with traditional in-person pitches. And while the way ahead isn't clear, he said, “I think we have the opportunity now to never go back to old ways.”
For the Army, a major priority is keeping combat brigades healthy but also ready for war. Prior to the coronavirus crisis, more than half of the brigades were at high readiness levels, but in the past month training has significantly slowed down.
"We’re in good shape but you’ve got to be able to turn it back on,” said Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy. He says that increased coronavirus testing capabilities will allow the Army to test units and then send them out for large battalion and company-sized exercises where they can remain in a bubble.
“We’re going to have to do that, and that’s where you’re going to have to manage the risk until there’s a vaccine," he said. "We’re preparing ourselves to do just that.”
Even as they take precautions, defense officials are eager to bat down any idea that they are so focused on protecting troops’ health that the force has been weakened or is unable to fight if needed.
“I don’t want anyone out there in the world to think that somehow the U.S. military’s readiness is significantly degraded. It is not,” Milley said last week.