Virus takes toll on US military trying to help

Thursday, March 26, 2020

WASHINGTON (AP) — The coronavirus is taking a growing toll on the U.S. military, and commanders and senior officials are bracing for worse. From nuclear missile fields at home to war zones abroad, from flight lines to ships at sea, the Pentagon is striving to shield vital missions even as it faces urgent calls for help on the civilian front.

Training exercises big and small, including one of the largest in Europe since the end of the Cold War, have been curtailed. Army recruiting stations have closed. Troops around the globe are hunkering down to confront an enemy unlike anything the world’s most lethal armed forces have encountered before.

“It’s unprecedented in my lifetime,” Defense Secretary Mark Esper said, adding that he believes that “in a period of months” the worst will be over and the force will once again be “fully mission capable.”

Until then, the ramifications of COVID-19 for the military are likely to expand. There are worries, for example, about the defense industry being weakened and key weapons development slowed.

Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, says that in a worse-case scenario, the military will lose some of its preparedness for combat and other missions. But the impact is likely to be “moderate to minor to low in terms of its risk” to national defense, he told reporters on Monday.

“I’m just not in a place right now where I can give you an accurate description of what that’s going to look like,” he said.

The Pentagon budget also is taking a hit, although a coronavirus relief bill working its way through Congress would provide billions for the growing list of new expenses, including loans to industry that would enable accelerated production of medical equipment like ventilators and respiratory masks for civilian use.

Many of America’s closest allies are waging their own COVID-19 battles, including Britain, Germany, Italy, France and other NATO partners, as well as South Korea, which hosts about 28,500 U.S. troops. At least temporarily, the pandemic has taken the edge off conflict in some of the globe’s major flashpoints, such as Iran, as governments focus on fighting the disease inside their own borders.

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