The top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee is demanding the Defense Department abandon its mandate that all troop and civilian personnel get vaccinated against COVID-19.
In a sharply worded letter to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, Oklahoma Sen. James M. Inhofe, the ranking Republican and former chairman of the Armed Services panel, said he had “grave concerns” about the impact the mandate would have on both readiness and morale, while criticizing the way the military services have rolled out the vaccination campaign.
“This haphazardly implemented and politically motivated vaccine mandate must be immediately suspended or risk irrevocable damage to our national security reminiscent of sequestration,” Mr. Inhofe wrote in a letter made public Tuesday.
“At a time when our adversaries continue to increase their quantitative and qualitative advantage against our forces, we should seek to ensure that no policy, even unintentionally, hinders military readiness,” he added.
The letter presses Mr. Austin for details on the cost of the mandate from service members, civilian employees and private industry contractors who balk at getting the shot, on exemption policies for those who refuse to get vaccinated, and on the impact on readiness if a large number of personnel quit rather than get the shot.
“The lack of strategic foresight in the implementation of the COVID vaccination mandate is inexcusable,” Mr. Inhofe wrote. “Plainly stated, no service member, Department of Defense civilian or contractor supporting the department should be dismissed due to failure to comply with the mandate until the ramifications of mass dismissal are known.”
Faced with relatively low voluntary vaccination rates among the troops, airmen and sailors, the Pentagon has been eager to mandate the COVID-19 shots as soon as federal health officials gave the vaccines full approval, ruling that they are safe and effective.
The Navy was particularly affected as ship crews spend long deployments in close quarters. The USS Theodore Roosevelt was forced into port last year after a particularly virulent COVID-19 episode broke out onboard, and the service has reported 164 COVID-19-related deaths, said Vice Adm. John Nowell, chief of naval personnel.
The Pentagon lists at least 67 active-duty service members who have died from COVID-19 complications since March 2020. All but one of the fatalities have been among the unvaccinated.
The Defense Department said last week that about 97% of active-duty troops are at least partially vaccinated and just under 84% are fully vaccinated.
Asked about the military mandate at Tuesday’s briefing, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said President Biden remains firmly in support of his order that all federal workers and military personnel get the COVID-19 vaccine, while noting the vast majority of the Defense Department workforce already has been vaccinated.
“More than 700,000 Americans have died of COVID-19,” Ms. Psaki told reporters. “[Officials] are trying to save people in their departments — people who work for them — and we support that effort and there’s been success across the country in that regard.”
The various military branches have begun to detail their policies for those in the ranks who resist the vaccine. The Navy announced last week a particularly stern mandate, saying sailors who refuse to get vaccinated will be forced to leave the service with a likely loss of benefits.
Active-duty sailors must be vaccinated by Nov. 14 and reserve sailors need to finish the process by Dec. 14, the Federal News Network reported. The Army, by contrast, has given soldiers, reservists and National Guard members until June 30, 2022, to get vaccinated or be forced to leave the service.
Mr. Inhofe in his letter said he was particularly concerned about what he called “the lack of clarity and consistency among the services as they look to implement the administration’s hasty vaccination mandate.”
“The ambiguity of the various policies combined with unrealistic timelines and processes for granting exemptions will ensure that tens of thousands of personnel are unable to comply,” he warned.