Analysis / Forces

Covid-19 Response Update: April 10-April 17

Combating Covid-19 Series

This is CSIS’s weekly roundup of major updates on the military and the novel coronavirus since Friday, April 10. It explores how the military has stepped up to combat Covid-19 and how the military has in turn been affected by the virus.

The military continues its support to civil authorities with National Guard personnel, the construction of temporary hospitals, some deployments of active-duty units, and recent deployment of reserve personnel. Personnel deployments continue to increase and have not yet reached a plateau. The comparatively slow intake of patients for the two hospital ships USNS Comfort and Mercy has been raising questions about how effective some of these responses have been, and how the military can be best adapted to assist the fight against a highly contagious virus.

The tension between military readiness/operations and force protection continues, but there has been no move to shut down all operations and training, though both have been severely restricted. DOD leadership says that the department will adapt to operate for months in a Covid-19 environment.

DoD’s position is that it contributes significant capabilities to dealing with the pandemic, but it is not in charge of the federal government’s response. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper is not visible at the evening White House briefings.

Context: The World and Nation

As of this Friday morning, the United States has 671,425 confirmed cases of Covid-19, over 200,000 more than last Friday, according to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center. The worldwide total stands at 2,176,432.

Military Cases of Covid-19

  • April 17: As of Friday, there are 5,927 total cases of novel coronavirus within the Department of Defense. Of the current cases, 2,986 were military service members, 675 dependents, 837 civilians, and 351 contractors. 225 of these cases required hospitalization, and there have been 19 deaths. 1,059 have recovered. How DoD cases have been trending over time is broken down below, by total cases; active cases in the DoD; and across the military services.

Impact of Covid-19 on Ongoing Military Operations

  • April 10: The USS Nimitz has been kept in a 14-day pier-side isolation at Bremerton, WA in preparation for its upcoming deployment. Its carrier air wing in California is observing a similar period of quarantine.
  • April 10: Navy publishes procedures for maintaining operations and protecting the force during the pandemic.  However, a lack of testing capability is inhibiting the Navy’s response to Covid-19 infections aboard ship.
  • April 13: The only carrier currently underway in western Pacific is the Chinese carrier Liaoning, which has taken the opportunity to operate near Taiwan and Okinawa.
  • April 14: The USS Harry Truman aircraft carrier is being kept at sea despite completing its deployment, to protect the carrier crew from Covid-19 and maintain a naval crisis response capability. The Truman will be kept at sea until the carrier USS Nimitz is ready to deploy. This is part of a larger effort by the Navy to preserve its aircraft carrier deployments  during the Covid-19 pandemic.
  • April 16: USS Roosevelt remains tied up in Guam and will be for a while, perhaps many weeks; most crew offloaded. More than 600 sailors have tested positive for Covid-19; one has died.
  • April 16: U.S. aircraft carriers are not the only carriers affected. The French aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle returned early from exercises on April 12th to Toulon, France due to an outbreak of coronavirus. There are now a reported 668 cases of coronavirus amongst the crew of less than 2,000 and 30 percent of the tests to detect the virus are yet to completed. Two of four U.S. Navy sailors onboard the carrier (participating in the Personnel Exchange Program) have coronavirus and are in quarantine. As with the USS Roosevelt, readiness for militaries will become an issue as the pandemic continues to spread worldwide.

Active Duty and Reserve Covid-19 Operations

One major new deployment announced this week (807th Medical Command, below). Most of the deployed military hospitals are not being fully used yet. The addition of reserve units is significant. Unlike the National Guard, reserves are under presidential control and cannot do law enforcement (except under extreme circumstances).  Their use has been inhibited because such mobilizations take medical personnel out of one civilian community to help another. Most of the military response has come from the Army, which has the bulk of medical units, with the Navy involvement coming from the hospital ships, and limited involvement by the Air Force and Marines, which lack the needed capabilities.

Continuing: Hospital ships Comfort and Mercy deployed to New York and Los Angeles, respectively. Three hospitals deployed to New York City. Medical teams deployed to New Jersey, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Michigan, and Louisiana.

New activities:

  • April 10:  807th Medical Command activates to support fight against Covid-19.The 807th, which is the largest Army reservist medical command, has 11,000 troops across 17 states west of the Mississippi and is based in Utah.  The command is deploying 900 of the 1,300 activated Army medical reservists to fight Covid-19. They are filling 15 Urban Augmentee Medical Task Forces (UAMTFs), newly created Army Reserve units to help support civilian medical care facilities around the United States. 
  • April 13: During the Navy League’s Sea-Air-Space 2020 Virtual Edition, U.S. Coast Guard Commandant Admiral Karl Schultz noted that the Coast Guard is “focused on people, readiness and enabling the economic prosperity and security of the nation” as the service maintains the Maritime Transportation System amid the Covid-19 crisis. 
  • April 13: The Army uses Annual xTech competition to focus on Covid-19 support.  The Army’s annual xTechSearch contest will hear virtual pitches from companies this week to field a low-cost, low-maintenance ventilator.  Successful pitches will receive $100K to develop ideas, with a shot at a production contract.  The ‘Ventilator Challenge’ currently has around $1M in funding.  The Army’s Director for Laboratory Management, Mr. Matt Willis, emphasized that the process is not meant to supersede FDA regulations, but to complement its efforts by producing a ventilator intended for more austere environments. 
  • April 13: The Air Force employed specially designed isolation pods to transport highly contagious Covid-19 positive patients.
  • April 14: Around 25,000 veterans have now responded to the Army’s call for volunteers.
  • April 14: Hospital ship Mercy reports seven cases of Covid-19. As of April 16, there are reports that the Mercy might scale back its mission as Los Angeles hospitalizations have leveled off, and the ship has treated only 20 patients a day. Under a revised mission, the Mercy would reduce its available hospital beds to about 250, out of 1,000, and send some of its medical staff to support regional nursing homes.
  • The USNS Comfort in New York continues to receive and treat Covid-19 patients. This was a revision of the original concept that Comfort would take only non-Covid-19 patients to allow hospitals to focus on Covid-19 patients. The hospital ships had been criticized for treating few patients compared with their 1,000-bed capacity. The difficulty in identifying and transferring Covid-19-free patients to the ship was cited as a reason. Other reasons might be concerns about continuity of care, desire to maintain doctor-patient relationships, and need of financially pressed hospitals to keep billing.
  • April 15: USAF medical personnel assist at NYC hospitals that are being overwhelmed by Covid-19 patients.
  • April 15: Small Marine Corps headquarters element (from 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade) deploys to New England in support of humanitarian operations.  The HQ element will direct military units supporting FEMA.
  • April 16: Military district of Washington reportedly preparing for continuity of government operations if necessary. Despite the tone of the article, this is not a prelude to martial law.

National Guard Covid-19 Operations

National Guard units are being activated in a state role (Article 32) to combat the coronavirus and enforce order. Nationalization (Title 10) is ruled out for now. The Guard is sticking with its supporting role and not engaging in law enforcement. The below graphic displays how National Guard activations have grown over time in response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

  • April 17: 33,000 Army and Air National Guard activated to assist with Covid-19 response efforts. This is a 17 percent (5,000) increase from the week before. Still, this represents a small part of the 443,000 servicemembers in the Army and Air Force National Guard.
  • A broader list of recent state National Guard efforts can be found here.

Readiness

  • April 14: General Mark Milley announces DoD will conduct an “after action review” of its response to Covid-19 to harvest lessons learned. Review could include “whole-of-government” response. No timeline announced. Such a review will be controversial because of criticism that DoD moved too slowly.
  • April 14: CG cutter Midgett, based in Hawaii, fights off Covid-19 and gets underway by taking early and aggressive action to identify and isolate infected crewmembers. Midgett might have been lucky or might have identified a broadly applicable process for continuing deployments.
  • April 14:  Army Pacific troops return early from exercise in Thailand.  Around 350 soldiers of 2-35 Infantry Regiment, of the 25th Infantry Division, recently returned to their home base in Hawaii.  The soldiers had originally been scheduled to return at the end of May.  The soldiers were met by Army medical personnel at the airport and have been undergoing a series of screenings before being quarantined for 14 days. 
  • April 15: USAF adjusts schedules and work patterns of essential personnel to continue operations while reducing the possibility of spreading Covid-19.  Fighter pilots flying alert missions over Washington, D.C. are kept in “a pretty tight bubble” to remain clean, while nuclear missile crews extend their usual rotation duration to 14 days.

Personnel, Bases, and Infrastructure

Supplies and Logistics

  • April 13: The Defense Logistics Agency has placed a $415 million order for 60 decontamination units to clean used N95 masks. The machines can clean up to 80,000 per day, and HHS and FEMA will distribute the machines when they are available in early May.
  • AEI publishes a Covid-19 Manufacturing Tracker listing hundreds of companies and “demonstrating the breadth of the private sector’s helpful response to this national emergency,” Tracker also shows two instances of the government’s use of Defense Production Act authorities.

Defense Industry

Continuing. DoD asks companies to continue working but allows those that wish to close to do so.

New activities.

  • April 9:  Army Awards Contract Modifications to 7 Companies for Covid-19 support.The Army announced awards totaling $5B in contract modifications for seven companies to provide support services amid the national emergency surrounding Covid-19.  The awardees are:  BTF Solutions, General Dynamics’ information technology business, Martek Global Services, Red Cedar, Strategic Initial Outfitting Transition, VW International, Walsh Healthcare Logistics.  The Army Corps of Engineers is the contracting agent. 
  • April 9: Three House Committee Chairman sent President Trump a letter requesting that he use DoD resources and Defense Production Act authorities more aggressively to get the defense industrial base to produce equipment for combating the coronavirus.
  • April 13: Boeing is reopening its P-8 and KC-46 production lines, despite having announced an indefinite suspension last week. It will put in place additional health checks to protect workers.
  • April 14: DoD awards a contract for 39 million face masks under the Defense Production Act. It will continue to provide masks to civilian hospitals handling Covid-19 patients.
  • April 14: Raytheon Technologies announced across the board pay cuts for salaried employees and furloughs for hourly workers after the closer of the merger with United Technologies reflecting business repercussions of the Covid-19 crisis.

Funding

Continuing. DOD “streamlining” budget review to allow more employees to telework. DOD received $10.5 billion in the CARES Act for pandemic-related health activities and  military operations.

New activities.

  • April 13: In a reprogramming memo, DoD asked to shift $32 million among various Air Force accounts “for expenses to prevent, prepare for or respond to coronavirus.” This may be the beginning of many such actions as previously planned activities are cancelled and new requirements need to be funded. These new requirements may be related to adaptations to Covid-19 like remote work, but DOD received $10.5 billion for such adaptations. Some of the unneeded funds may be applied to unfunded requirements in other areas, such as described in the service lists provided to Congress.
  • DoD is reportedly looking to the next supplemental to fund items unrelated to Covid-19 but justified by helping employment. In late February, the military services sent Congress Unfunded Requirements Lists, as they do annually and unrelated to Covid-19. Lists totaled $18 billion.

What to Look for Next Week

Watch the USS Nimitz deployment. If it can stay infection-free and deploy, then the Navy has a model for how to continue operations in a Covid-19 environment. If not, then the broad spectrum of military deployments, naval and other, may not be viable.

This weekly update is made possible by the International Security Program at CSIS. The authors particularly thank James Dailey, Timothy Goyer, Jason Gresh, Andrew Hunter, Mark McDonnell, and Brian Mulvihill for their contributions to the update.

(Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)

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