Secretary of Defense Mark Esper joined Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Mark Milley and Senior Enlisted Adviser to the Chairman Ramón Colón-López at a Pentagon town hall Tuesday. (Watch the video here.) They took turns answering questions submitted by troops and military family members about how the Department of Defense is responding to the COVID-19 crisis and what impact the crisis might have on the defense community and on national security.
Esper outlined three priorities for DoD:
- Take care of service members and their family members;
- Safeguard mission capabilities;
- Support the whole government interagency effort.
To that extent, he said that DoD currently has a stockpile of personal protective equipment (PPE) large enough that they have offered to share with civilian medical providers. Esper said DoD’s stockpile will be replenished when private industry is able can increase production. He also said that Military Treatment Facilities are fully staffed and capable of handling the projected impact, that the DoD is working to get enough tests and to make sure that laboratories can process them, even noting that self-testing kits will be coming out soon.
General Milley said that people who are symptomatic should get tested, but noted that it’s also flu, cold, and allergy season and that the symptoms for COVID-19 can look similar to those ailments. “If you feel like you’ve got the flu, you should probably get tested,” Milley said.
The leaders also discussed the impact the virus could have on other areas of national security, noting that the Pentagon is now on HP Con Charlie status, the second-highest level, reducing access to contractors, civilians and non-essential military personnel.
“Countries are turning inward now,” Esper said, noting that our allies and adversaries are all also suffering from the virus, though all are dealing with it differently.
Milley explained that the fallout from the virus and attempts to contain it could lead to “social breakdowns, political chaos and resource shortages,” and that those conditions and the economic impact could have national security implications for the United States. For this reason, the leaders explained that it’s important for service members to be prepared to respond.
Esper said, “You can’t get social distancing in a submarine or a tank. If you can avoid putting people in a small room, you should do it. Get that social distancing as best you can.”
Military families can expect the pains of the response to the COVID-19 crisis to last for weeks, and possibly months, longer, the leaders explained. Milley said that based on what we’ve seen in other countries, we should expect the crisis to continue for about three months. For this reason, most Permanent Change of Station (PCS) moves will continue to be on hold until mid-May, and possibly longer. DoD will reevaluate PCS moves in 60 days, he said and will either decide to lift the freeze and prioritize which moves need to happen first or extend the freeze. Milley added that those already planning to retire from the military are specifically exempted from the PCS freeze and that they will not be stop-lossed into continuing service, but will be allowed to retire as planned.
Deployed service members on rotations, however, may have their deployments extended as DoD works out how to handle rotating troops in and out of deployments, Esper added.
“Uncertainty is nothing new for us,” Lopez said. “That’s what military members and their families do on a daily basis. But we need to take care of one another. We need to make sure we are looking out for our neighbors. For those that are deployed, rest assured that your families will be taken care of. That’s something that we’re going to take very seriously, throughout this crisis.”