Pentagon Limiting Travel, Scaling Back Exercises During Coronavirus Outbreak

The Defense Department is limiting travel and curbing exercises as more service members and civilians are confirmed to have the new coronavirus, though officials maintain the impact of the outbreak is limited.

As of March 10, there have been at least three Active Duty service members confirmed to have the virus—one in South Korea, one in Europe, and one in the U.S. Additionally, one civilian, four dependents, and one contractor are confirmed to have the virus, which is officially known as SARS-CoV-2, Joint Staff Surgeon USAF Brig. Gen. Paul Friedrichs told reporters. Six more personnel have been evaluated, with results pending.

The Defense Department has conducted 143 tests in DOD labs, and additional tests have been conducted at other labs. So far, there are 13 labs up and running with “ample supplies” to conduct tests.

The department is still learning about the virus and the impacts of the outbreak, and Pentagon officials expect the numbers to continue to increase. Symptoms include fever, cough, and trouble breathing. Though most people only develop mild symptoms, the virus can be fatal.

“There are things about any new outbreak that just take time for us to learn,” Friedrichs said. “Is it possible that there are more people infected than these numbers reflect? Absolutely. It is likely, given what we’ve seen around the world.”

The impacts of the virus are being felt in all ranks across the military. For example, on March 9 the Army announced that Lt. Gen. Christopher Cavoli, commander of U.S. Army-Europe, is voluntarily quarantining himself after possibly being exposed to the virus during a recent conference.

Defense Secretary Mark Esper has postponed travels to India, Uzbekistan, and Pakistan because of the outbreak, saying he wanted to stay in the U.S. to help coordinate the military’s response. Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman said March 10 the decision is based on the possibility that personnel traveling with Esper might develop symptoms on the trip and have to go into quarantine. Other countries also are limiting international travel, Hoffman said.

Military commands across the globe are scaling down some exercises. For example, U.S. Forces-Korea has reduced or canceled its exercises, though local unit-level training continues.

U.S. Africa Command announced March 10 it is scaling down the African Lion exercise, expected to begin March 23 in Morocco, Tunisia, and Senegal. This year’s exercise will include just the portions that don’t require troops to be lodged in close quarters, and academic portions that have already begun.

Within the Air Force, the service has attempted to minimize the spread of the disease by:

  • Restricting travel of U.S. Air Force Academy cadets, cadet candidates, and permanent party personnel. Personal and leisure travel to impacted countries has been prohibited through the end of March.
  • Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, Texas, is temporarily banning guests from attending Basic Military Training graduations and any other “mass gatherings that are not deemed mission essential” at the installation.
  • The Air Force has made its March 12 “Spark Collider” and Pitch Bowl, originally scheduled to take place at SXSW in Austin, Texas, which was canceled due to the outbreak, virtual events.
  • The Buckley Air Force Base, Colo., Child Development Center has been closed for cleaning after a parent tested positive for the virus.
  • All Air Force personnel are directed to follow Center for Disease Control levels for travel guidance.

Travis Air Force Base, Calif., Dobbins Air Force Base, Ga., and Joint Base San Antonio are housing passengers from the Princess Cruise. Officials have said there is little risk to personnel on those bases.

Air Combat Command boss Gen. Mike Holmes told the House Armed Services tactical air and land forces subcommittee March 10 that service leadership convened to discuss the virus that day, following another meeting with Esper and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley March 9.

“We’ve done the things you’d expect us to do,” Holmes said. “We’ve gone through the checklists that we have for a potential pandemic … we’ve planned ahead to look ahead at how it affects us.”

The Air Force is mainly concerned about service member travel overseas for exercises and assignments and are reviewing related policies.

“In our industry base, those are certainly challenges that are a larger challenge, I think, an American challenge, a national challenge beyond our scope to be able to handle,” Holmes said. “We’re working to try to safeguard our military members in the communities where they live, and then also safeguard the readiness that we fought hard to gain.”