The U.S. Military Won’t Return to Business as Usual After the Pandemic


As America logs record-breaking numbers of daily COVID-19 infections and deaths, the U.S. military is far from immune. In the first half of July, confirmed cases jumped by approximately 60 percent, with more than 10,500 servicemembers infected. An emergency in and of itself, COVID-19 also taxes armed services already facing a slew of challenges. While the military has been able to preserve important elements of continuity, like small-unit training, the virus’s toll is vast and growing.

Despite the Pentagon leadership’s apparent wish that military strategy and operations will return to business as usual when a vaccine becomes available — a health security milestone that Secretary of Defense Mark Esper predicted would come before the end of this year — there are good reasons to question this optimism. The longer this pandemic continues, and the less competent the U.S. response is, the greater stress it will place on the military through disrupted deployments, strained alliances, and personnel problems. Rather than being harmed by prudent public health precautions, military readiness — like economic recovery — actually requires them.



Deployments Disrupted

Early in the COVID-19 crisis, Navy Capt. Brett Crozier’s warning about rampant infections on the USS Theodore Roosevelt drew attention to the risk posed to sailors deployed on ships with quarters too close for social distance and quarantine. The ensuing controversy roiled the Navy and, in an unexpected twist, resulted in Crozier being relieved of command because he “did not do enough, soon enough” to stop the virus’s spread. Blame notwithstanding, COVID-19 resulted in a two-plus month interruption in the aircraft carrier’s deployment. The USS Theodore Roosevelt wasn’t the only Navy ship affected by the pandemic. The USS Kidd, a guided missile destroyer, also spent six weeks in port while battling a viral outbreak. Two warships deployed to the Middle East undertook record-breaking deployments to avoid the prospect of infections during port calls. Even on land, those operating intercontinental ballistic missiles have seen major changes to their operations, prolonging their rotations in underground silos from one day to two weeks as a COVID-19 safety measure.

New procedures — including on-board health and safety practices, as well as restricting visits to “safe haven” ports — may forestall the risk of further outbreaks and allay the logistics problems created by unusual deployments. But to succeed these measures require full compliance. A recent cluster of cases in the Marine Corps, which were traced to prohibited parties over the Fourth of July, underscore the difficulty of enforcement, especially as COVID-19 continues to spread rapidly in states with large military facilities. These new deployment patterns, born of viral necessity, may have broader implications for political relationships and military-to-military ties. They also highlight biosecurity challenges that will outlast this pandemic, like the threat posed by “friendly” yet contagious civilians.

Alliance Strains

America’s lagging COVID-19 response — and its toll on U.S. military personnel — is placing additional strain on already-fraying American alliances. Amidst rampant viral spread in the United States, U.S. personnel are bringing the disease with them on overseas deployments, exposing allied troops, family members, and other local employees. This transmission risk exacerbates friction with host countries and communities. In Japan, for example, concerns about COVID-19 emanating from bases on Okinawa — where the Marines have reported more than 140 cases — are aggravating an already tense relationship. U.S. Forces Korea’s 111 COVID-19 cases, which reportedly emanated from the United States, have disrupted plans for joint exercises in August — a complication that arises at a particularly sensitive time as the Trump Administration is reportedly weighing a reduction of the U.S. presence in South Korea. Infections have also appeared at American bases in Germany and Australia.

As long as the pandemic rages at home, the United States can anticipate continued tension with its allies, who are understandably anxious about the military’s viral imports undermining their own national pandemic response and recovery. Canceled, postponed, or scaled-down joint exercises will likely result in reduced allied readiness — with compounding effects over time. If American arrivals contribute to a COVID-19 resurgence in allied nations, political backlash to U.S. presence could ensue, with potentially lasting effects. As Columbia Professor Alexander Cooley, an expert on the politics of overseas basing, has pointed out, American bases are a juicy political target for local politicians seeking a COVID-19 scapegoat. Moreover, American incompetence managing this outbreak at home and failure to marshal an effective international response in its so-called “war” on COVID-19 may raise questions about the utility and reliability of the United States as an alliance partner.

Personnel Problems

The disease also presents a thicket of personnel problems for the Pentagon. Limits on in-person recruitment and basic training delays have constricted the personnel pipeline. After initially banning anyone ever infected with COVID-19 from joining, then prohibiting anyone hospitalized, the military has since changed course yet again and adopted a case by case approach. As a growing portion of the U.S. population is exposed to COVID-19, the military must contend with recruits who have contracted the novel coronavirus (be they symptomatic or asymptomatic), have recovered, or remain vulnerable to contracting it. Individuals who have recovered from the disease may enjoy a window of immunity, but also may be at risk of reinfection and long-term health complications. Moreover, domestic bases like Fort Bragg in North Carolina and their surrounding communities have emerged as virus hotspots, and there is evidence of disease transmission occurring during training.

For as long as this pandemic continues, COVID-19 infections stand to limit the pool of viable new recruits. Viral spread among current service members — as well as civilian staff and contractors — presents a further challenge: Although the enduring effects of COVID-19 on survivors remain poorly understood, a force suffering from widespread pulmonary, kidney, or cardiovascular issues faces potential combat readiness challenges. Recurrent interruptions to training, exercises, and travel ought to be expected. The military and veterans’ health care systems will also be taxed by current and future viral waves, as well as their lingering legacies.

A “New Normal”?

Perhaps each category of challenge will prove a temporary, mid-pandemic disruption with few enduring effects — what Vice Adm. Phillip Sawyer, deputy chief of naval operations and the Navy’s COVID-19 response lead, described as a “new normal COVID environment.” But with more than 60,000 new cases per day in the United States, the virus will continue to infect servicemembers, their families, and other Defense Department personnel. While enhanced testing, tracing, and force health protection measures will be essential to enable troops to execute their missions, the inextricable ties between military and local communities mean that only an effective national response can address the growing readiness challenge. The Defense Department may contribute to this effort through Operation Warp Speed — however, as Naval War College Professor Frank Smith’s research on biodefense shows, the Pentagon has not historically excelled at research, development, or acquisition of medical countermeasures.

One need not espouse an expansive definition of national security to recognize that Washington’s shambolic COVID-19 response has undermined America’s national defense. The longer it takes for the United States to get the virus under control, the more likely that these operational disruptions accumulate to produce strategic effects. What is more, COVID-19’s toll on the U.S. military may be compounded by the virus’s reverberations through domestic and international politics: the emboldening of competitors whose virus response outperforms that of the United States, the operational demands of a world in upheaval as COVID-19 wracks developing nations, and mounting pressure to reallocate discretionary spending toward recovery and away from defense. Rather than whistle past the graveyard and deny the harsh realities that will emerge when the COVID-19 crisis recedes, the process of military adaptation and planning must start now.



Rebecca Lissner is an assistant professor in the Strategic and Operational Research Department at the U.S. Naval War College. She is the coauthor of the forthcoming book, An Open World: How America Can Win the Contest for Twenty-First-Century Order, with Mira Rapp-Hooper. The views expressed here are her own.

Image: Senior Airman Derek Seifert