Coronavirus Causes U.S., Allies to Cancel Military Exercises Around the World

The United States and its allies have canceled a series of joint exercises around the world as the new coronavirus pandemic continued to grip the international community.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg told Agence France-Presse last Wednesday that the Western military alliance planned "no cancellation of exercises" related to the spread of the COVID-19 disease across Europe. However, a week later, host nation Norway called off Cold Response 20, a maneuver being conducted alongside the larger Defender-Europe 20 exercise that was supposed to send 20,000 U.S. troops to Europe in their largest deployment there in a quarter-century.

With the disease continuing to spread through the continent, U.S. European Command announced Wednesday that it "will modify the exercise by reducing the number of U.S. participants" and that Defender-Europe activities "will be adjusted accordingly."

But the disease has already taken hold. While U.S. Army Europe told Newsweek in a statement Thursday that "at this time, we are not aware of any U.S. personnel associated with DEFENDER-Europe 20 that have a positive diagnosis for COVID-19," the Polish Defense Ministry confirmed days earlier that commander General Jaroslaw Mika tested positive after attending a conference related to the exercise. As a result, the U.S. top Army general in Europe, Lieutenant General Christopher Cavoli, was potentially exposed and remains in quarantine with several staffers.

Elsewhere in Europe, a civilian employee at U.S. Army Garrison Bavaria tested positive Wednesday, as has a U.S. sailor at Naval Support Activity Naples in Italy, where active COVID-19 cases will soon surpass that of China, the disease's country of origin. The entire country is in lockdown.

With infections among the U.S. and allied ranks growing, the Pentagon and allied armed forces have begun to reconsider their military moves and how to they could maintain their readiness under threat of COVID-19.

us, army, poland, nato, europe, defender
U.S. Army soldiers from the 3rd Infantry Division line up to meet U.S. and Polish dignitaries during a troop engagement event at Drawsko Pomorskie Training Area, Poland, in support of Defender-Europe 20, March 11. Sergeant 1st Class Joy Dulen/7th Mission Support Command/U.S. Army

"We have taken preventive measures, including limiting non-mission essential travel to and from high-risk areas, suspending school operations on affected installations and instituting virtual classrooms, conducting virtual town halls and pre-screening personnel who travel in and out of high-risk areas for symptoms of exposure," U.S. Army Europe told Newsweek in a statement.

"U.S. Army Europe is working closely with its host nation partners, closely monitoring the situation, and is taking prudent measures in line with those taken or directed by the host nation. The safety and health of everyone in the community is the paramount concern," it added. "We continue to monitor all of our exercises and activities and will make any appropriate changes needed to prevent the spread of COVID-19."

As of Thursday, a day after President Donald Trump announced a 30-day suspension of all travel from Europe, the scaled-down Defender-Europe 20 exercise remained on.

"We have a commitment to our Allies and partners and to the American people to continue to train and remain prepared for any contingency, so by continuing to conduct these type of exercises we continue to enhance our warfighting readiness," U.S. Army Europe told Newsweek.

A document published last week by the U.S. military and seen by Newsweek explained that last month's assessments conducted regarding COVID-19's capability to degrade U.S. forces' readiness posture were based on a lower human-to-human transmission rate than has since been observed. This assessment has since been updated indicating more service members are now at risk.

Douglas H. Wise, a former deputy director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, said such preparedness assessments were routinely revised by the military and described them as "useful for the warfighter." He explained to Newsweek: "What's the impact if I gotta go to war and 10 percent of my fighting force is afflicted? It means they can't get out there."

The U.S. has by far the largest military presence of anything country on Earth, with about 800 bases across the globe, likely more than the rest of the world combined. Defense Secretary Mark Esper announced Wednesday "new travel restrictions for 60 days for service members, DoD civilians and families traveling to, from, or through Level 3 locations, as designated by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)." These restrictions go into effect Friday, along with the European travel ban.

south, korea, coronavirus, covid-19, us, military
Soldiers stationed at U.S. Army Garrison Casey conduct pre-screening processes on individuals awaiting entry to the base, Dongducheon, South Korea, February 26. U.S. Forces Korea is at "risk level 'high' peninsula-wide and is implementing all appropriate control measures to help mitigate the spread of COVID-19 as a prudent measure to protect the force." Sergeant Amber I. Smith/U.S. Army Garrison Casey

Level 3 locations are places where the CDC "recommends that travelers avoid all nonessential travel." In addition to Europe, coronavirus-related country restrictions apply to China, Iran and South Korea, another close U.S. defense partner rattled by the recent outbreak.

The Pentagon initially suggested scaling back joint military exercises with South Korea as coronavirus cases there surged into the thousands last month A day after a soldier at Camp Carroll became the first active member of the U.S. armed forces to contract COVID-19. However, U.S. Forces Korea canceled the combined drills altogether. As of Thursday, nine individuals related to the command have tested positive.

Training was also interrupted on the far opposite end of Asia, in Israel, where a joint missile defense exercise called Juniper Cobra 20 was nixed last week. The exercise was to involve 2,500 U.S. and 1,000 Israeli personnel, but U.S. European Command announced two days after its March 3 launch that the drills would be canceled "in alignment with recent Israeli Ministry of Health guidelines on COVID-19, and a precautionary measure to ensure the health and safety of all participants."

Israel has adopted strict rules such as a ban on Europeans and restrictions on large gatherings in order to curb the spread of the disease. The country has so far registered 130 confirmed COVID-19 cases, four of whom have since recovered.

The U.S. and Israel have collaborated closely against their mutual enemy Iran, now a hotspot whose reported COVID-19 cases have exceeded 10,000, nearly 3,000 of which have recovered and nearly 430 who have died. While the State Department has said it would offer assistance to its longtime adversary, which has appealed for international support against the Trump administration's sanctions hampering its crisis response, the U.S. has also accused the Islamic Republic of potentially covering up the extent of its outbreak and the Pentagon announced new travel restrictions for the Middle East.

Marine General Kenneth McKenzie Jr, head of U.S. Central Command, told Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday that the military has "cut back significantly on intra-theater travel" in the Middle East and Central Asia. One contractor, however, he warned has already begun displaying symptoms of the COVID-19 disease.

us, army, troops, iraq, medical, supplies
U.S. Soldiers with 1st Battalion, 5th Infantry Regiment, 1st Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division, share medical supplies February 14 with Iraq army soldiers charged with guarding western Iraq's Al Asad Airbase, which was targeted in an Iranian missile strike in January. A number of Iraqis infected with COVID-19 have traveled to neighboring Iran, which is suffering from one of the worst novel coronavirus outbreaks outside of China. Sergeant Sean Harding/U.S. Army Central

Changes have been made in regions less affected by the disease as well. U.S. Africa Command announced Tuesday that its forces along "will modify the size and scope" of the joint African Lion exercise in order "to minimize exposure of U.S. and partner nation service members to the novel coronavirus (COVID-19)."

The maneuvers were set to run from March 23 to April 3 and involve nearly 5,000 military personnel from the U.S., Egypt, Morocco, Mauritania, Senegal, Tunisia, Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, the U.K., Australia, the Netherlands and Portugal.

"The safety and protection of all of our forces—U.S. and partner nation—is a priority. Modifying the exercise still improves readiness while minimizing risk to protect both U.S. and partner forces," AFRICOM commander General Stephen J. Townsend said in a statement. "While the scope of the exercise will adjust, our commitment to our African partners endures."

As for South America, U.S. Southern Command chief Admiral Craig Faller told lawmakers Thursday that "there has been some postponements of some events, a few conferences," but "we haven't had any mission impacting cancellations of our joint train exercises." He added: "I certainly think as this goes, we'll be expecting to make decisions on a case-by-case basis."

The number of confirmed COVID-19 cases around the world has exceeded 135,000 nearly 5,000 of whom have died and more than half of whom have recovered.

coronavirus, map, covid-19, countries, world
A graphic provided by Statista shows the global spread of the new coronavirus as of early March 13. Around 135,000 have been afflicted, more than half have recovered, while about 5,000 have died. Statista

The above graphic was provided by Statista.

Correction March 13, 2020, 11:42 a.m.: This article has been updated to reflect that the Cold Response 20 NATO exercise was scheduled to be conducted separately from the larger U.S.-led Defender-Europe 20 NATO exercises.

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