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Pentagon Takes Restrained Role in Coronavirus Response, Despite Calls for Help

WASHINGTON — For more than 18 years, the United States military has been defined by Washington’s wars overseas, with hundreds of thousands of troops rotating through far-flung hot spots, fighting battles in places many Americans can barely pronounce, let alone point to on a map.

But as the coronavirus pandemic sweeps across the United States and an anxious public looks for a response from its armed forces, many military and civilian leaders at the Pentagon whose careers have been defined by the long wars are suddenly trying to answer one question: What is the American military’s role in trying to safeguard the country from a new enemy, one that is now taking a deadly toll within its borders?

Some military officials say the Defense Department can do all of it: prepare for a potential war with China and Russia, fight the Islamic State and rush field hospitals to Seattle and New York. But the department’s actions say otherwise, as the Pentagon’s top leadership has yet to find a balance between protecting Americans at home versus preparing to wage war abroad if so ordered.

“The president says it’s a war. It is a war,” Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Democrat of New York, said on Tuesday in describing how to fight the pandemic. “Well, act like it’s a war.”

But the Pentagon has yet to join the fight with full force.

In a message to his Marine Expeditionary Force on the West Coast last week, Lt. Gen. Joseph L. Osterman described his priorities, encapsulating the Pentagon’s stance on the virus thus far.

“This is all about force preservation, readiness and being good neighbors to our adjacent communities,” he said in an email obtained by The New York Times.

The Pentagon’s decision to initially distance itself from the country — much like General Osterman’s directive to look inward before helping Americans outside his bases — has made the U.S. military’s response piecemeal, said Stanley McChrystal, the retired general and former commander of U.S. troops in Afghanistan until he was fired in 2010 by President Barack Obama.

“My sense is that the mission to defend America against enemies, foreign and domestic, should be interpreted to include even unconventional threats like the ongoing pandemic,” General McChrystal wrote in an email. “I believe they can, should, and ultimately will be required to do much more.”

For militaries around the world, a national crisis can be a time of reckoning, thrusting uniformed service members into daily, face-to-face contact with those they are sworn to protect. As the coronavirus spread in Italy, soldiers deployed for general security purposes, but a few were sent to the north of the country to enforce the nationwide lockdown.

But there are pitfalls. In Spain, it was the military that discovered that patients in a nursing home had been abandoned amid the pandemic. But that led to a spitting match between the country’s minister of defense, who criticized health workers for leaving their posts, and the union representing those workers, who said they had not been given enough equipment by the government.

In Liberia, during the 2014 Ebola crisis, the president deployed the country’s military to enforce a sudden, mandatory quarantine of a densely populated slum, with disastrous results: Protests broke out, and soldiers fired live rounds into the crowd. A 15-year-old was shot and killed.

The American military is recognized as a formidable fighting force, with logistical, communications and supply networks that excel in extremis. The people now calling on the military to help think more can and should be done, as a number of governors, mayors and municipal officials in besieged cities across the United States have made television appearances to plead for aid from the Defense Department.

“The military has extraordinary medical capacity of its own that’s been honed in fighting wars,” Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York told NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday. “They can handle any situation. All that great personnel who are medically trained should be sent to places where this crisis is deep, like New York, right now.”

In particular, the armed services know how to set up command-and-control centers, how to stock warehouses and how to transport doctors, nurses and medical materials around the country, and quickly.

Gen. Mark A. Milley, the country’s top military officer, said on Monday that two Army field hospitals would arrive in New York and Seattle by Thursday, bringing to each city the ability to care for an additional 248 patients. The hospitals, one to each city, will have 11 ventilators each.

Other mobile combat hospitals are prepared to deploy and may soon be headed to stricken areas, General Milley said. The Mercy, the Navy hospital ship based in San Diego, is bound for Los Angeles with its 1,000 beds.

But critics say that is not enough, and that the deployments do not scratch the surface of what one of the world’s most powerful militaries — and the country’s top logistical organization — is able to accomplish. The Pentagon has “lost precious time, especially in terms of planning a military response,” said Paul Eaton, a retired major general and a veteran of the Iraq war. “Now we have a situation where the military response is like whack-a-mole, trying to respond to hot spots as they pop up.”

He said the Pentagon “must unleash the military planners to plan now for a wider response, to ensure every area gets what it needs, without putting undue strain on our resources.”

The military is not at the forefront of the country’s efforts to fight the coronavirus for many reasons.

For one, President Trump has yet to announce any sort of nationwide quarantine, so there is little the active-duty military can or should do to enforce recommendations for social distancing. Pentagon officials are also acutely aware of the image of uniformed troops marching into American cities; they have dealt in recent weeks with rampant rumors on social media of martial law.

With the response to the virus largely done on a state-by-state basis so far, that has meant an increased role for the National Guard. About 9,000 National Guard troops across the country have been called up.

Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper has opted for a slower approach than some of the Defense Department’s service secretaries and chiefs of staff. In particular, he has lagged behind the Army in putting some measures in place.

Last week, Mr. Esper rejected proposals from the Army and Navy to halt or at least slow down basic training for new recruits as a way to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus across the ranks. Mr. Esper’s decision, first reported by The Washington Post, means that new recruit training continues even as the Pentagon has halted virtually all domestic travel for the next eight weeks.

Similarly, the Army this month stopped deployments of soldiers to countries hit hard by the coronavirus, days before Mr. Esper ordered the other services to do so. Both episodes reflect a bifurcated response that has been in play since Mr. Esper warned American military commanders overseas not to make any decisions related to the coronavirus that might surprise the White House or run afoul of Mr. Trump’s messaging on the growing health challenge.

The Pentagon has issued “extensive guidance to our force” and given commanders leeway to properly safeguard their troops, Alyssa A. Farah, a Pentagon spokeswoman, said in a statement.

The Defense Department is also “contributing extensively to the Whole of Government response to COVID, offering up extensive resources ranging from our hospital ships, to medical supplies from our strategic stockpiles, to helping with construction of field hospitals,” Ms. Farah wrote.

Mr. Esper’s restrained response so far is to a certain extent “appropriate, and probably expected, especially given so many vacancies on the civilian side,” said Derek Chollet, a former assistant secretary of defense.

“There is an important psychological factor of reassuring folks at home and making clear to those abroad that we remain resilient,” he said.

But a different leader, such as the former defense secretaries Donald H. Rumsfeld, Robert M. Gates, Leon E. Panetta and Jim Mattis “would be more of a public command presence,” Mr. Chollet said.

This tension is understandable: Mr. Esper does not want the military to be blindsided by adversaries who could take advantage of the viral outbreak. Moreover, some Pentagon officials have expressed concerns that the closer the military becomes involved in day-to-day interactions with people who have tested positive for the virus, the greater the chances the military’s largely young force falls ill. And that undercuts military readiness.

Kathleen H. Hicks, a former top Pentagon official in the Obama administration who is now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said it was essential that the Defense Department ensure that its forces remain protected from the coronavirus — but within reason.

In many ways, this approach has spread confusion and discord in the ranks as various commands have interpreted the Pentagon’s directives as they see fit. Deployments are in limbo, and troops in combat zones have little idea when they will return. Even if they knew, it is uncertain where they would spend weeks of quarantine; base officials have previously used ad hoc tent camps or cramped excess housing.

One example is a Marine unit that was sent to the American Embassy in Baghdad in the days before the Jan. 3 drone strike on Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, one of Iran’s top military commanders. Those Marines are now stranded in Kuwait because their return flights to the United States were canceled.

In a briefing to the unit, military officials said the flights were “postponed” and asked those in attendance not to call their longer deployment an “extension,” according to a Marine who was present.

The unit, he said, was not pleased with the requested distinction.

Source: NY times

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