How Coronavirus Could Hurt U.S. Military Readiness

Training and deployment disruptions would affect crisis response and engagement with allies.
COVID-19 could disrupt military training and deployments. DOD

So far, the effects of COVID-19 (aka coronavirus) on the military have been modest, a few reduced exercises and some restrictions on gatherings, but if current trends continue, and the military reacts with the level of concern, or panic, seen in the civilian world, the effect on military readiness will be devastating. Fortunately, wartime capabilities will not be much affected because, in an emergency, the military will accept the risk from disease and do what it needs to fight a war.

The military problem: working together. The military’s problem is that the nature of its work requires that a lot of people work together, often in tight spaces, under physical stress, and without a lot of personal distance. Historically, militaries have suffered far more from disease than from combat casualties. Although military hygiene and medicine have improved greatly, the nature of the work puts limits on the kind of precautions that are possible.

The possible future: reductions in exercises and deployments. So far, the military has canceled or scaled down exercises in IsraelKorea, Tunisia, and Morocco, cut back on travel to Europe and Asia, and reduced participation in some ceremonial activities like boot camp graduations. These are at the level of annoyances.

But in the civilian world, universities are canceling classes, the governor of New York is using the National Guard to isolate an infected city, and cities are prohibiting large gatherings. If this kind of thinking gets applied to the military, massive changes will result.

For example, ships are ideal disease incubators. Crews are tightly packed and kept together for weeks at a time. It is customary that bronchial diseases (“the crud”) get passed around the crew during the deployment. A crew with COVID-19 would likely not be allowed to enter any foreign port. Most ships don’t have a doctor on board, just corpsmen, who are skilled and, at times, heroic but lack the medical expertise to give the highest level of treatment that most people would expect for sick military personnel. Ships with sick crews will likely get sent home, like cruise liners with sick passengers, and possibly quarantined. That reduces U.S. global presence and the ability to respond to crises.

Exercises around the world will likely be scaled back, often a euphemism for canceled. Few countries want a large number of potentially infected foreigners dropped on their doorstep. The lack of exercises will not just dull the skills of military personnel and units but will sacrifice the engagement with allies and partners that makes the network of U.S. global partnerships so effective.

But the effects will go beyond that. How will the military services conduct basic training (a.k.a. “boot camp”)? Recruits are crammed together, exercised, put under stress, and told to stop whining. It’s another perfect incubator for disease. Military schools that teach primarily in classrooms, like the war colleges, can operate remotely. But the military services can’t do that for basic training nor can they teach military skills remotely. Flight school trainee pilots need to get into the cockpit. Artillery school students need to shoot on the ranges. Paratroopers need to jump out of airplanes.

If that kind of training stops, units will quickly lose their edge. Military turnover is about 25% a year as servicemembers on four-year contracts leave, and raw recruits take their place. It doesn’t take long before skills thin out. The military services will likely try to continue training until some trainee dies of COVID-19, and angry parents demand changes to the system to protect their offspring. Then the military services will face a crisis.

The military and the influenza of 1918. There’s history about the military and influenza. The infamous influenza of 1918, which killed millions of people worldwide as the First World War was ending, likely began on a military base. There are several candidate bases, one in France and several in the United States, but the likelihood of the disease either starting or spreading on military bases is strong. Military bases, in addition to the problems of fatigue, crowding, and poor sanitation, had the wartime characteristic of being a transit point for personnel going elsewhere and thus providing ideal mechanisms for spreading the infection.

Wartime capabilities will be unaffected. In a wartime emergency, the military is going to do what it needs to do to fight a conflict. Military authorities would accept the risk of infection and order troops to deploy, ships to sail, and aircraft to fly. Thus, if sailors on a ship get sick, they will be evacuated, but the ship will stay on station. If members of a ground unit get sick, they will be evacuated, but the others will stay. There will be no quarantine and maybe not much of a chance to use hand sanitizer. That will result in some additional casualties, but if hundreds are already being killed and wounded at the front, risks from a viral respiratory illness look modest.

The military will be able to get away with this because, while COVID-19 is dangerous (fatalities 3.4%), it is fortunately not in the same league as the Black Death (fatalities 50% to 70%, depending on the type) or Ebola (fatalities up to 90%). Thus, the military could “gut it out” if it had to.

What to watch for. The arrival of warm weather in the northern hemisphere may ease the spread of infection. However, the level of concern is rising faster than the weather is warming. Every day brings new cancellations and restrictions in the civilian world, often characterized as done “out of an excess of caution.”

The military may be able to avoid actions that reduce readiness and responsiveness, at least for a while, but it cannot detach itself entirely from the civilian society. Watch to see whether DOD cancels global exercises, restricts deployments abroad, or closes training organizations in the United States.

Further, watch what happens when a sailor gets sick on a Navy ship. Does the ship evacuate the sailor and continue its mission, or is the ship recalled to the United States and quarantined as cruise liners have been?

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