The Pentagon on Monday canceled or scaled down major drills across the globe, took dramatic new steps to protect Defense Secretary Mark Esper, and ramped up teleworking as the U.S. military races to deal with the global coronavirus pandemic.
The wave of new directives stretch across all corners of the military, from the sprawling Pentagon complex and its more than 25,000 workers to U.S. military personnel in Europe, Africa, and elsewhere around the world. The Army said it is downsizing the long-awaited Defense Europe 20 exercise — the largest military drill on the continent since the Cold War — in an effort to keep coronavirus from spreading through the ranks.
More than 20,000 U.S. military personnel were expected to take part in the landmark set of drills, but that number now will be closer to 6,000. No additional American service members will deploy to Europe and the transfer of additional equipment has been halted.
“As of March 13, all movement of personnel and equipment from the United States to Europe has ceased,” the Army said in a statement. “The health, safety and readiness of our military, civilians, and family members is our primary concern.”
Hours later, U.S. Africa Command followed suit and canceled its African Lion 2020 exercise. The exercise was designed to promote U.S. military partnerships with African nations dealing with a rising wave of jihadi terrorism.
The Pentagon has restricted both international and domestic travel for military personnel, making the logistics of a major foreign military exercise virtually unworkable.
At home, the Defense Department is taking new steps to protect both the brass and the rank-and-file workforce. Officials said Mr. Esper, for example, will no longer be in the same location as Deputy Defense Secretary David Norquist as the military institutes a “continuity-of-command” protocol in the event of a worst-case scenario.
“They and their staff will only interact via teleconference,” chief Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman said Monday. “We are attempting to, for want a better word, ‘put a bubble’ around the two of them.”
Military leaders already have ceased public Pentagon tours, postponed official ceremonies, and took steps to limit the number of visitors who enter the building. Any foreign visitor must wait at least 14 days after returning to the U.S. before entering the complex.
As with the rest of the federal government, Pentagon employees are being encouraged to work at home when possible. But that may prove difficult, if not impossible, for military personnel who routinely work with sensitive or classified information in secured settings inside the Pentagon itself.
Officials also say they’re taking steps to ensure that military personnel and their families at bases around the world have access to food, cleaning supplies, personal hygiene products and other items. To prevent panic buying and hoarding of items at off-base supermarkets, officials are authorizing military commissary stores to impose limits on high-demand products such as toilet paper.
Mr. Hoffman said the changes “will be done in coordination with base leadership.”
With coronavirus cases rising across the country, the Pentagon late Sunday night confirmed that a sailor based in San Diego had tested positive for the virus. The case drives home the need for the military to protect its service members and also underscores the danger armed forces members could face if the virus begins to spread through a base, a ship or another densely-populated installation.
The sailor, who has not been identified, is assigned to the U.S.S. Boxer, an amphibious assault ship. His is the first confirmed COVID-19 case involving a sailor aboard a Navy ship.
“We remain in close coordination with state and federal authorities and public health authorities to ensure the well-being of our personnel and local population,” Navy officials said in a statement released Sunday.