The following is an excerpt from Reopening America: How to Save Lives and Livelihoods, a new report where Brookings experts offer ideas to help policymakers protect lives and save livelihoods in the midst of the current COVID-19 pandemic.
At a time of turbulence due to COVID-19, it is worth noting one of the generally goodnews stories to date: the American armed forces are holding up well despite the pandemic. That may come as a surprise to those who have read about the brouhaha over the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt a few weeks ago, as well as the temporary suspension of boot camps by some military services. And the challenges could get worse in the future. But as I learned in an interview on May 4 with Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, the situation is rather good today.
FEW POSITIVE COVID-19 CASES
Start with the simplest metric: Out of just over 2 million Americans in uniform today, counting 1.3 million active-duty as well as National Guard and Reserve personnel, less than 5,000 have tested positive for COVID-19 (as of May 4, in information provided by Secretary of Defense Mark Esper when I interviewed him that day). That incidence rate is about two-thirds the national average. But because the military is predominantly young, serious cases are much less prevalent than in American society. There have been fewer than 100 hospitalizations and just two deaths to date—less than 1 percent the per capita rate in the United States writ large. Also, while the Theodore Roosevelt did function as a sort of petri dish for the spread of the virus, most military units are somewhat isolated from those urban centers where the coronavirus has hit the hardest to date. As Secretary Esper told me, a deployed ship is actually a great place to avoid COVID-19 provided that no one on board has it!
More than 60,000 military personnel including 45,000 members of the National Guard have deployed throughout the United States in support of COVID-19 response. Some have spelled civilian healthcare workers in hard-hit cities; most have focused on supply and logistics efforts. Happily, the USNS Comfort and USNS Mercy will be returning back to home port soon as their hospital services may no longer be needed as backups to overworked hospitals—at least not at this stage of the crisis.
ECONOMIC DOWNTURNS MAKE RECRUITMENT EASIER
Despite temporary suspensions of some accessions of new recruits into boot camp, the armed forces have now restored their personnel pipelines. That is crucial because, even though a tough economy should ease the challenges of both recruiting and retention, today’s all-volunteer force needs to replace about 15 percent of its people every year. To date, there is no indication of any big problem in this area, though it will be important to see how springtime recruiting trends go, since the armed forces depend on signing up large numbers of recent high school grads in the warmer months.
Small-unit training has continued throughout the crisis. Army and Marine Corps squads and platoons, Air Force and other services’ flight teams, and other core elements of the military’s combat formations have never really slowed down in the crisis to date. They have adopted social distancing practices and other smart protective measures in doing so, some of which mimic fighting in a chemical weapons environment (as the Wall Street Journal recently reported), but that has not prevented units that are effectively the size of large families from continuing to work together and live side-by-side. Importantly, such training has continued in Korea and other forward locations as well, even as life has been significantly altered in most other ways for military personnel in those places, just as with the various lockdowns in America. For especially sensitive units such as those manning the country’s nuclear forces, extra testing and quarantining measures have further ensured continuous combat readiness.
While larger exercises like Air Force Red Flag training and Army National Training Center rotations have been suspended to date, they are set to resume carefully in the spring and summer. The Army is sending about 1,000 soldiers who are part of a “security force assistance brigade” to the Joint Readiness Training Center in Louisiana in preparation for its rotation to Afghanistan in a few months’ time. That is smaller than a classic combat brigade of 3,000 soldiers but allows safe practices to be tested, and refined, as a first step. Future resumption of full-bore training will be done carefully, with lots of testing of soldiers, and with prioritization for units based in parts of the country where the virus is less prevalent and where hospital capacity is adequate to handle any surge in infections, just in case. And the defense industrial base continues for the most part to maintain continuity of output of vehicles, aircraft, munitions, electronics equipment, and other critical supplies for the American armed forces.
POSSIBLE BOTTLENECKS WITH CONTRACTORS
To be sure, problems and concerns remain. Subcontractors for the defense industry are not all operating at normal pace. As Secretary Esper explained (and as Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy told me the week before), those in Mexico and in severely afflicted U.S. cities are of particular concern. Bottlenecks may thus develop not only for production of new equipment but for parts needed in maintenance of existing stocks.
While the path forward for normal training can be sketched out, it has not actually been implemented yet. And if the reopening of the country leads to a worse spike in cases, the military may be more severely impinged, since of course it cannot escape contagion from the society in which it lives and operates. It is important to keep a particular eye on states, regions, and communities where military presence is greatest, like the coastal Carolinas, central Texas, the Newport News and Virginia Beach/Hampton Roads area, San Diego and other parts of coastal California, and a few others. Combined-arms training at a high enough level to require meaningful integration of different types of units into an overall effort is essential to preserve the American military’s excellence. It is the capability to do such things well that created the U.S. armed forces’ successes in Operation Desert Storm and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, for example, and that remains central to deterrence from Korea and the western Pacific to Poland and the Baltics to the Middle East today. Until it is resumed at scale, we should not spike the football in the end zone prematurely.
In addressing all of this, the international threat environment remains largely unmitigated by COVID-19, with things perhaps even a bit more intense in regard to China in the South China Sea, as well as Iran. If threats grow even as the virus spreads in the ranks, the situation could of course get worse for that reason as well. Thus, this positive assessment must remain an interim one.
In looking at Secretary Esper himself, President Donald Trump made a good choice in nominating him as the nation’s 27th secretary of defense. A West Point grad and Army Ranger by background, Esper gets the military and its culture. A Capitol Hill veteran, he gets Congress. A defense industry leader after that, he knows the importance of the nation’s defense industrial base for preserving the technological excellence that complements the superior quality of our men and women in uniform—yet is too often neglected, or even pilloried, in political and policy debates. Esper is not the larger-than-life kind of figure that General James Mattis represented, but we don’t need that right now. Esper sees it as his job to implement Mattis’s 2018 National Defense Strategy, with its focus on great-power competition, and so far, that seems to be continuing, even in this time of COVID-19.
…the American armed forces are holding up well in this difficult time. I do not think deterrence is suffering and do not think combat readiness has degraded much if at all to date—certainly by no more than single-digit percentages, depending on what metric one might prefer to use.
So, the American armed forces are holding up well in this difficult time. I do not think deterrence is suffering and do not think combat readiness has degraded much if at all to date—certainly by no more than single-digit percentages, depending on what metric one might prefer to use. Things are going even better, in fact, than I would have predicted. But then again, of course, it’s still only late May.