The novel coronavirus epidemic is starting to affect the Department of Defense on everything from recruitment to fighter production. Here’s a look at its impact so far and how the Air Force is proactively working to counter the spread of the virus within its ranks.
While the coronavirus has prevented some F-35 Joint Strike Fighter test pilots from traveling to Japan for test activities, it has also begun to impact the aircraft’s production.
On March 4, Pentagon acquisition and sustainment boss Ellen Lord said the Defense Contract Management Agency told her that Japan’s F-35 Final Assembly and Check-Out (or FACO) facility at Mitsubishi Heavy Industries will close for at least a week in order to halt the virus’ spread. The move, which follows the action by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to close schools in the country, only impacts the production of Japanese F-35s, according to Defense Department spokesman Lt. Col. Mike Andrews.
The production line at Italy’s FACO in Cameri hasn’t been impacted, though the virus is spreading throughout the country, Andrews said. However, Lockheed Martin, heeding an Embassy Travel 4 alert, has restricted its personnel from traveling there, and the location’s Pratt & Whitney Resident Engine Team has been told to telework, he said.
Lord said parts supply from overseas suppliers could be affected later.
As far as other programs with an international supply chain, “right now, we have not seen any effects” from the outbreak, “but I have a team working on that very heavily right now,” Lord told reporters at the McAleese and Associates conference in Washington.
Lord said she is meeting with Defense Secretary Mark Esper weekly to discuss the virus’ potential effects on Pentagon activities, and the coronavirus team is working cooperatively with U.S. Northern Command chief USAF Gen. Terrence O’Shaughnessy, who “has the point for DOD” on the issue.
Recruitment and Training
The Air Force is on the lookout for signs of COVID-19, the official name for the disease the virus causes, in anyone who walks into a military entrance processing station, Air Education and Training Command told Air Force Magazine March 4.
“The safety and security of all of our recruits is of the upmost importance to us and we are taking steps to ensure their safety and well-being,” a command spokesperson said in an email. “Members at MEPS have virus protocol procedures to observe and take temperatures of all individuals entering MEPS facilities. Air Force recruiters also complete a medical pre-screen on all applicants that covers all medical concerns, to include COVID-19.”
While the service is not testing all recruits for the virus, if someone displays signs of illness after arriving at MEPS they are “immediately” separated and tested by medical staff, they said.
AETC is urging “all Airmen and personnel” to heed advice from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention about everyday steps they can take to help keep respiratory illnesses from spreading, such as handwashing, properly sanitizing “frequently touched objects and surfaces,” and trying not to touch their eyes, nose, and mouth, the spokesperson said.
It’s still unclear as to how a wider outbreak of the virus within the continental U.S. might impact Air Force training and education formats and scheduling (i.e. whether CDC advice about social distancing will play a role or whether online classes will be used where possible).
The 18th Wing at Kadena Air Base, Japan, announced March 5 that AmericaFest 2020, which was scheduled for April 25, has been canceled because of the virus. The event, an “open house” that is designed to “promote friendship and understanding between members of the local community and military members, civilians, and their families,” would likely have attracted more than 50,000 people, according to press releases from the wing.
“The safety of our community, both on and off base, is my top priority, and with the number of cases of COVID-19 continuing to rise, the safest thing to do is cancel AmericaFest 2020,” 18th Wing Commander Brig. Gen. Joel Carey said in the press release. “Team Kadena was really looking forward to this event… but we need to make sure everyone stays safe and healthy.”
The decision is the latest in a string of festivals and other military community events that have been canceled on Okinawa due to the virus. Officials now plan to host AmericaFest at Kadena in the spring of 2021 instead.
The Air Force has asked some of its headquarters staff to work remotely on March 6 so it can perform an emergency preparedness-driven test of its teleworking capacity, Politico reported March 4. The service stopped short of actually name-checking the virus as the impetus for the test, the outlet noted.
“Even though the coronavirus outbreak continues to capture the world’s attention, the possibility of contracting this virus in the U.S. is remote,” AETC emphasized in a March 4 release. “However, if you have been in any of the affected areas [currently China, Iran, Italy, Japan, and South Korea] within the past two weeks and develop a fever or cough or have trouble breathing, seek medical attention immediately, and remember to let medical personnel know of your travel history.”
Editorial Director John A. Tirpak and Air Force Magazine correspondent Jennifer Hlad contributed to this report.