Disclaimer: the views expressed in this article belong solely to the author and do not represent the official position or policy of the Hoya Battalion, the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.
At American University, and across the United States, the CO.VI.D.-19 outbreak has proved to be a significant challenge for the United States military. The nature of Department of Defense (DOD) operations greatly exposes personnel and infrastructure to the virus, but maintaining a sound defensive posture at home and abroad remains the primary mission of the U.S. military. Even in the face of this threat, the U.S. military remains a key national asset that must be both protected and utilized to the fullest extent possible.
On the home front, 15 states have activated their National Guard contingencies to assist in government relief and preparation efforts. Guardsmen are vigorously sanitizing public areas, distributing food, activating medical personnel, and providing logistical and administrative support to affected populations. However, per U.S. law, the National Guard can only complement the Federal Emergency Management Agency (F.E.M.A.) and Health and Human Services (H.H.S.). They are authorized to supplement law enforcement (block transport and travel, use deadly force for law enforcement), but no governors have decided this is necessary. For the foreseeable future, National Guard soldiers will play a key part in state government efforts to mitigate and respond to the virus.
Despite the critical role of the National Guard, there are significant DOD resources that the U.S. government has not taken advantage of, including: military medical facilities, personnel such as military doctors and nurses, and equipment such as ventilators. While not all-encompassing, these resources could alleviate the strain on our infrastructure while not significantly degrading military readiness. The DOD's budget and authority ensures that resources and new spending could be mobilized with little roadblock, particularly through the Defense Production Act. With extensive defense ties to nations such as Israel that are at the forefront of vaccine development, the DOD could prove to be the timely asset that the U.S. needs. (Just minutes before this article’s publication, President Trump invoked the Defense Production Act to combat shortages in public health supplies).
Like local governments, the Defense Department has taken drastic steps to protect personnel. Beginning March 16, all non-essential domestic travel is suspended for D.O.D. personnel and families. Mission essential humanitarian or extreme hardship travel is permitted, but only as determined and approved by the highest-ranking general officer in a soldier’s chain of command. Outside of medical necessity, stateside and abroad personnel are authorized leave only in their immediate area. Soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines are now missing essential training such as Basic Officer Leader Course, a newly commissioned officer’s first assignment that qualifies them for their duties within their branch. This gap, while temporary, will affect the readiness and effectiveness of D.O.D. personnel for months to come.
At A.U., Reserve Officer Training Corps (R.O.T.C.) students are facing similar challenges to the wider military. The Hoya Battalion—the D.C. Army R.O.T.C. program that coordinates cadets at A.U., George Washington, Georgetown, Catholic, and the Institute of World Politics—has suspended all regular training and major training exercises for the rest of the semester. Cadets have been encouraged to follow university guidelines and return home if necessary while senior cadets and cadre prepare online methods of instruction. Mandatory summer training at Fort Knox will likely be pushed back later into the summer, meaning more cadets will have to train on a condensed time frame. Despite training with a preeminent R.O.T.C. program, Hoya Battalion cadets will miss out on in-person training and preparation, particularly critical opportunities to integrate with cadets from other universities.
Soldiers deployed abroad are facing significant challenges in their mission as well. Those deployed as a part of Defender 2020—an exercise assessing our ability to effectively deploy soldiers to bolster N.A.T.O. forces—are now returning stateside with their equipment. Slated to be the largest exercise in Europe in 25 years, the U.S. military now faces potentially significant weakness and disorganization in the European theater. Additionally, U.S. Africa Command has cancelled African Lion, a multinational exercise in Morocco. These kinds of exercises are the primary method the U.S. military uses to foster partnerships, build interoperability with allied militaries, and fulfill their strategic objectives laid out in the National Defense Strategy. The suspension of these exercises and the drawdown of our forces abroad means greater uncertainty for leaders in their efforts to prepare the U.S. military for future conflicts.
While CO.VI.D.-19 has forced the U.S. military to alter its training rhythm and posture, it maintains its presence in affected countries like Korea and Italy. In its efforts to prepare to win a large-scale conflict against China or Russia, the U.S. military fortunately faces little impediment. While Russia has not announced many cases compared to the U.S., the government has ordered drastic measures to curtail the spread of the virus, including a $4 billion economic package. Most importantly, China has been hit the hardest by CO.VI.D.-19, facing a greater impact on their government than the U.S. Compared to these two nations, the U.S. is not getting weaker. However, the U.S. military must consider the impact that the virus is having on our partner forces. U.S. forces in Italy and Germany especially are essential to the U.S. military’s defensive posture in Europe. If they take more time to recover, then our allied posture may face significant temporary weaknesses when compared to our adversaries and competitors.
Considering the assistance that the U.S. military could provide to the nation in combating CO.VI.D.-19 as well as the effects on national security, the President must include senior defense leaders in crisis leadership. Currently, neither Secretary of Defense Mark Esper nor Chief of the National Guard Bureau General Joseph Lengyel are on the Coronavirus Task Force. Greater control and inclusion of defense resources is imperative to protecting the readiness of our forces, both at home and can expedite activation of necessary assets in bolstering our domestic response effort. The health and safety of the American people depend on the effective use of our military, regardless of whether our enemy is a virus or a foreign military.
Matthew Levengood is a third-year Political Science major in the School of Public Affairs. He is also a member of Army R.O.T.C. on A.U.'s campus. He is a columnist for the Agora.
Image courtesy Jake Offenhartz, Creative Commons