Exclusive: U.S. Military Activates Its Never-Before-Used Federal Response to Combat Coronavirus Pandemic

The National Mall
The National Mall, Washington D.C.
The reflecting pool and the mall, normally filled with tourists, are shown nearly empty due to the impacts of coronavirus on March 17.
Getty/Photo by Win McNamee

While being hit with coronavirus at rates equivalent to the civilian population, the U.S. military has activated its "defense support of civil authorities" apparatus, establishing liaisons in all 50 states, activating units and command posts, and moving forces to provide medical, transportation, logistics, and communications support in New York and Washington states.

Lt. Gen. Laura Richardson, the command of Army North (ARNORTH), has requested and received approval for the deployment of ground units in response to the now declared national emergency. The moves begin to implement two existing contingency plans—CONPLAN 3400 for "homeland defense" and CONPLAN 3500 for "defense support of civil authorities"—as well as numerous new orders specifically relating to coronavirus. Fourteen states have also appointed "dual-status commanders," presidentially-approved National Guard officers who serve in both state and federal chains of command, with another 20 states to follow.

The Pentagon announced that the first dual-status commanders had been appointed in California, Colorado, Massachusetts, Maryland, New York, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Washington.
"The role of the dual-status commander is that he works for two different principals through two different chains of command," says Army Maj. Gen. Giselle Wilz, head of the National Guard Bureau's strategic plans and policy directorate. The dual-status commanders will report to Gen. Richardson as well as to the governors of each state.

That is, except for Hawaii. That dual-status commander reports to U.S. Army Pacific (USARPAC) – an organization of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command that is responsible for Hawaii and the Pacific territories.

The federal military response, never before activated on a nationwide scale, is a patchwork of complex organizational schemes. While Gen. Richardson is the commander of the Joint Forces Land Component Command of U.S. Northern Command for all federal (and dual-status) ground troops in the continental United States and Alaska, USARPAC is in charge in the Pacific, reporting to NORTHCOM just as Gen. Richardson does. As "maritime" assets, the two hospital ships—the USNS Comfort and the USNS Mercy, now in Los Angeles and New York—are also under a separate command, the Navy's Fleet Forces Command, which also serves as Naval Forces North (NAVNORTH) and the Joint Forces Maritime Component Commander for North America. And still another command, Marine Forces North (MARFORNORTH) operates side-by-side with ARNORTH, in charge of Marine Corps troops.
In total, Army North has deployed approximately 1,100 active duty servicemembers assigned to specific units, and they started moving to New York and Washington states immediately after they were assigned. The active duty units deployed include:

  • Joint Task Force-Civil Support Headquarters, Fort Eustis, Virginia
  • 3rd Expeditionary Sustainment Command, Fort Bragg, North Carolina
  • 4th Sustainment Brigade, 4th Infantry Division, Fort Carson, Colorado
  • 63rd Expeditionary Signal Battalion, Fort Stewart, Georgia

Joint Task Force-Civil Support was established in 1999 as the domestic response authority in case involving weapons of mass destruction—chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN). According to its website, "when directed, JTF-CS will deploy to an incident site, establish command and control of Department of Defense forces, and provide military assistance and support to civil authorities by saving lives, preventing further injury and providing temporary critical support to enable community recovery."

military conducts drill coronavirus
Joint Task Force - Civil Support (JTF-CS) conduct a Rehearsal of Concept (ROC) drill practicing deployment and objectives on top of a large map of their target disaster site. Department of Defense

But its secondary mission is what the federal government calls "all-hazards" response. "Although primarily charged with a CBRN response mission," the Joint Task Force says, it "could be directed to respond to a natural or man-made disaster if asked to do so by U.S. Northern Command."
On March 28th, Gen. Richardson also announced that four U.S. Army Reserve units would be called to active duty to support the federal response:

  • Task Force 76 Headquarters, formed by the 76th Operational Response Command, Salt Lake City, Utah
  • 377th Theater Sustainment Command Headquarters, New Orleans, Louisiana.
  • 4th Expeditionary Sustainment Command Headquarters, San Antonio, Texas.
  • 505th Military Intelligence Brigade Headquarters, San Antonio, Texas.

To align with the ten FEMA regions responsible for emergency management, Army North has also activated its ten Defense Coordinating Offices, senior Colonels who are embedded with each regional command center. These are a specialized planning cells that serve as military liaisons to coordinate federal assistance. Another 100 Emergency Preparedness Liaison Officers are also now active, augmenting the Defense Coordination cells.

In announcing the activation and movement of forces, Army North was careful to specify that none of the units "will ... directly participate in civilian law enforcement activities."

Similarly, Air Force Maj. Gen. Joseph Lengyel, chief of the National Guard Bureau and a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said: "I'm hearing unfounded rumors about National Guard troops supporting a nationwide quarantine. Let me be clear: There has been no such discussion."

Because of so many rumors flying in social media, the Pentagon established a "rumor control" website to beat down stories of military-imposed quarantines and even martial law. And it said it was going to limit details of both the specific numbers of coronavirus cases and operational details.

"Unit level readiness data for key military forces is information that is classified as a risk to operational security and could jeopardize operations and/or deterrence," Alyssa Farah, the Pentagon's press secretary, told Military Times. "If at some point in the future, a commander believes that the coronavirus could affect the readiness of our strategic deterrent or strategic response forces we would understandably protect that information from public release and falling into the hands of our adversaries―as we expect they would do the same."

As of March 31, the Defense Department reported 1204 confirmed active cases of coronavirus throughout its community: 673 servicemembers, 247 civilians working for the military, 212 family members and 72 contractors.

4/1, 9:30 a.m.: This story has been updated throughout.