How Will Coronavirus Affect the US Military?

Nellis Air Force Base (AFB) near Las Vegas Nevada continues to conduct red flag exercises in the midst of alarm over the novel coronavirus. At the time of this writing most major sports have suspended their seasons, colleges are going exclusively online, my job teaching chess after school is cancelled until further notice, and both the federal and state governments have declared states of emergency. This leads to an important question of how the military will continue with so much disruption and the general public at home due to Covid-19. The answer is surprisingly complex.

US Military vs. Coronavirus

As Nellis’ ongoing red flag exercises show, some training events continue as planned. But single pilots are different and more protected than military members sent for annual training in South Korea. The location of the events, as well as danger of massing soldiers in a single place has forced the military to put a 60 day pause on all maneuvers and they have cancelled the movement of 20,000 soldiers to training Europe, and 15,000 to the Arctic Circle. Despite the jokes from many soldiers that participate them who say they are pretty basic and useless, these are important exercises that increase readiness.

A major example of the effects of exercises can be seen in Poland. It is important for US forces to train for a potential Russian attack. In the event of an attack NATO forces would have to move forward to the Sulwaki Gap likely under heavy Russian fire while NATO air assets tried slow down a Russian invasion. Furthermore, NATO would have to be able to do this within a 72-hour window in which Russian troops would be precisely calculated to complete their objectives. Thus, it’s important for American forces to practice this, and it’s just one example of a cancelled exercise that could affect the military’s ability to counter strategic threats.

DOD Cancels Domestic Travel for Troops

On a more personal level, the Department of Defense has cancelled all domestic travel for troops and employees until May 11. That means that service members can’t visit their families on leave and mostly affects those soldiers completing their permanent change of station (PCS) from one base to another. The impact is that military members who have already arranged to sell their homes on one base suddenly can’t move to another and are now homeless. Or they have already packed and shipped their belongings to a new location but must sit in an empty house with no furniture or silverware. The result is that people’s already stressful moves have to placed on hold and they will have to recover their goods or find temporary housing. This is rather inconvenient for the families involved but thankfully don’t affect national security as much as the cancelled training.

Stopping Coronavirus From Spreading Among Recruits

Basic training is the biggest problem. Recruits spread diseases to such a degree that they have a name for it called “recruit crud” and historians believe it was World War I recruits at military bases that started spreading the 1918 Spanish Flu. Recruits have little personal space while they sleep, shower, and eat with fellow soldiers often less than an arm’s distance away.

To combat this problem the recruit depots now check for temperature upon arrival and quarantine any recruits showing possible symptoms. They are not sent home, but like many other physical injuries the recruit must be fully healthy before they resume (or begin) their training. The military services have also cancelled family day and graduation ceremonies. Ironically, the recruit training is the worst place for the virus because of constant close contact, but also one of the best if some factors are eliminated. Indeed, outside of one day with their parents on base, which has now been cancelled, recruits don’t go anywhere. The bases are self-contained and have their own medical services, and recruits have to undergo thorough physicals before they start training. They have means to enforce strict quarantine efforts as well. So the worst that happens is that many of the most recent recruits are put into the medical battalion, isolated, and resume training several weeks later.

Will Coronavirus Lessen Military Fighting Prowess?

Ironically, the least worrisome aspect of the virus involves actual fighting. Most people who get the disease report mild symptoms, and the death rate for those under 30 is extremely low (about .2%). The military is made up of the younger, stronger, and healthier people than the population on average. This means that the virus could easily sweep through entire units but in combat they would hardly notice their mild flu like symptoms as they stay busy avoiding getting killed and defeating the enemy. Outside of combat, troops should remain worried that they could spread the disease to their aging family members, but this is no different than the population at large.  The coronavirus could be a danger to those already wounded, however, as it’s much more deadly for those with respiratory diseases and underlying health conditions. In the case of combat it would create an even greater need for a separation of the sick from those infected.

In summary, the military is missing vital training and will see a slight dip in new recruits for the next few months, while some military family members are stuck in limbo.  But overall the Coronavirus will have little effect on the actual fighting capabilities of military members and their readiness.