WASHINGTON – The Pentagon could soon begin emerging from its COVID-19 lockdown as senior officials explore how to train and deploy units for combat while the virus continues to infect and kill.
The risk of returning to normal operations, underscored by the coronavirus' rampage through the crew of the USS Theodore Roosevelt, is being balanced against losing the skills troops need to operate lethal weaponry safely and to win in combat.
"We were in tremendous posture right as COVID hit with our readiness – over half our brigade combat teams in the highest level of readiness," Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy told USA TODAY.
"If we don't turn it back on by this summer, we're going to start to see atrophy with our readiness posture. So we think we've got the right capacity to test. We think we have the social distancing protocols in place where we can do this."
The goal, McCarthy said, is to begin training this summer a unit scheduled for deployment to Afghanistan to advise security forces there. The Army will soon present the plan to Defense Secretary Mark Esper for approval of what would be a major step toward reopening the military.
The pandemic hasn't stopped adversaries from probing U.S. defenses. Iranian speed boats have menaced warships in the Persian Gulf, Russian planes buzzed a Navy surveillance plane flying over the Mediterranean, and ISIS fighters in Iraq and Syria continue to attack American and coalition forces there.
On Thursday, the Pentagon reported 5,472 cases of coronavirus among troops, 120 of them hospitalized. More than 2,400 troops have recovered. Pentagon officials have not released projections for how many troops they anticipate will contract the disease.
Few in the military have been exempt from a ban on travel for troops and civilians aimed at limiting the spread of the disease. That has resulted in training exercises being canceled or curtailed.
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Regular, continual training on a large scale is essential to the U.S. military's edge on adversaries, said Michael O'Hanlon, a military analyst at the Brookings Institution.
Orchestrating the aircraft, troops on the ground, artillery barrages and supply lines requires lots of troops. About 1,000 personnel are needed in training a battalion, and at the brigade level exercises involve thousands of troops, he said.
"Some of this can be simulated, but I think you need a certain amount of real practice too," O'Hanlon said.
Forgo real-world training too and the atrophy that McCarthy fears becomes dangerous.
"Over time I think it’s serious because combined-arms warfare is at the heart of what makes the U.S. military excellent, and you need to practice the coordination," O'Hanlon said.
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Training on hold since March
Major training exercises both abroad and in the United States essentially ended March 13, when the Pentagon froze travel for most troops.
Now, as many governors across the country are beginning to reopen their states, the Army, Air Force, Marine Corps and Navy are preparing to phase in more normal operations.
Return too quickly to normal operations – without adequate testing – and the hazard is all too clear. The coronavirus ripped through the crew of the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier Roosevelt in March and April and sidelined it in Guam, where sailors were quarantined and treated and the ship was disinfected. It remains there after one sailor died, the captain was fired for seeking aid and the acting Navy secretary resigned.
Esper and senior military leaders have conducted triage to ensure that troops in what the military refers to as "no-fail missions" have had the highest priority for COVID-19 testing. Air Force pilots and missileers, as well as Navy submarine crews with nuclear missions, belong in that category, as do Army special operations forces tasked with the highest-priority missions.
"Those units have to be ready at 100% every day," McCarthy said.
A key issue to ensure the ability to train and fight for troops in lower tiers has been testing capacity, he said.
"So we think we've got the right capacity to test," McCarthy said. "We think we have the social distancing protocols in place where we can do this. We can put a unit into a bubble and train a large collective."
Gen. James McConville, the Army chief of staff, on Tuesday toured the National Training Center in the California desert where troops train in large-scale exercises before combat deployments. He's determining how "to turn it back on," McCarthy said.
Keeping watch on states with bases
Chiefs of the other services are making similar calculations with an eye on conditions in the states where they have bases.
Adm. Mike Gilday, the chief of naval operations, told sailors last week to focus on their health and that of their families as communities reopen. Each base and region will restart operations based on local conditions and guidance from Esper and the Navy.
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"When we entered this pandemic, we quickly closed down services to minimize interactions and the spread of the disease," Gilday said. "We will need to take a measured approach to opening up these services to prevent a recurrence of the disease. I expect local commanders to understand area conditions and to communicate prudent expectations and guidance up and down the chain of command. I trust our sailors to follow these guidelines."
The Navy's top sailor heeded his own advice soon after sending the message.
“Following contact with a COVID positive family member, Adm. Gilday has tested negative multiple times for the virus," Navy Cdr. Nate Christensen said Thursday. "He continues to self-quarantine and is currently working from home.”
The Pentagon appears to be on the right track for a gradual return to normal operations, O'Hanlon said.
"I’ve been impressed with how the military is thinking about this – with lots of testing, lots of social distancing, prioritization of units in parts of the country where COVID is less rampant and hospital capacity is more prevalent, and of course quarantining and contact tracing where need be," O'Hanlon said.
Gyms still closed, travel still limited
Across the country, commanders have been making risk calculations about opening.
At Fort Campbell on the Kentucky-Tennessee border, home of the Army's 101st Airborne Division, leaders have been encouraged by the small number of COVID-19 positive cases there. But they plan to reopen slowly.
Maj. Gen. Brian Winski, 101st Airborne Division and Fort Campbell senior commander, said he will continue to keep gyms closed and restrict travel for troops to 50 miles from the post.
If there’s no change to the COVID-19 spread, they’ll ramp up training through the summer.
“Our fundamental responsibility that we’re charged with and our fundamental purpose as an Army is to be ready for combat,” Winski told a town hall meeting last week.
Garrison commander Col. Jeremy Bell said planning for a return to regular training is underway.
“We’re considering all options to uncoil from our current COVID position," Bell said. "We’re trying to do so responsibly and safely. We want to set conditions so we can begin training and increase our readiness on Fort Campbell. We’ll do this in close coordination with our local communities, but we’re not always going to be completely aligned with what folks are doing outside the gates of Fort Campbell."
Tennessee has launched a phased reopening with restaurants, retail stores, gyms, and salons, with Gov. Bill Lee directing a relatively rapid reopening in most counties.
Kentucky has moved at a slower pace. Gov. Andy Beshear has laid out a plan that allows some businesses, like manufacturing and retail, to reopen in mid- to late May.
Fort Campbell leaders say they’re moving at their own pace, staying slow and methodical.
“We’re going to balance this with adjusting our defensive posture, maintaining the absolute priority of protecting our soldiers and family members and the Fort Campbell community,” Winski said.
Meantime, soldiers continue to deploy from Fort Campbell. A unit 270 soldiers from the 531st Hospital Center rushed to New York City to manage the field hospital set up at the Javits Center, where they treated about 1,200 patients. About 200 soldiers were tested for COVID-19 in New York. They boarded a sterile plane and were taken directly to a quarantine facility upon their return to Fort Campbell on Tuesday. They all tested negative but will remain isolated for 14 days.
“It won’t be the traditional welcome home,” Winski said.
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