Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Dave Goldfein last week sent a message to commanders warning of a long-haul fight against the coronavirus.

In his message to commanders, provided by the Air Force on Tuesday, Goldfein warned that a vaccine against COVID-19 may be at least 18 months away. And in the coming weeks, the service must prepare for a “new reset” to counter foes around the world while still holding the virus at bay.

“Until then, we must find ways to survive and operate with a virus likely to return a few times between now and then,” Goldfein said.

But Goldfein said that the Air Force’s experience training for nuclear war, chemical weapons attacks, and other catastrophic threats has prepared it well for the time of COVID-19. Now, it’s up to airmen to relearn those skills to operate in an environment of social distancing and contamination concerns, Goldfein said.

“It’s time to dust off those Ability to Survive and Operate (ATSO) manuals,” Goldfein said. “Many of us grew up in the age of Apple Orchards, MOPP [Mission Oriented Protection Posture] levels, operations with [personal protective equipment] aircraft decontamination procedures, etc. While we have not required it in recent years given our focus on the Middle East, the ability to survive and operate in a CBRNE [chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear or explosive] environment is in our DNA.”

Goldfein said he ordered his top commanders to come up with a series of ATSO-type exercises in coming weeks to figure out ways to change operating procedures, and also come up with ways to improve technology during the coronavirus crisis.

Goldfein stressed that physical distancing, face coverings, proper hygiene and observance of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention protocols work to lessen the threat of spreading coronavirus — though he acknowledged the downsides of isolation, loneliness and depression that physical distancing brings.

But, he said, those steps have helped keep the Air Force’s rates of COVID-19 cases relatively low. As of May 4, the Air Force said it has had 914 total COVID-19 cases, including uniformed airmen, civilians and contractors. One contractor has died.

And Goldfein said the Air Force is working to improve its testing capability.

“Our procedures are proving successful,” Goldfein said. “Now they must be modified so they are sustainable for at least a year. At the same time, we need to search for new ways to build and sustain readiness given COVID-19 is not our only global threat."

Goldfein called the virus threat the “defining moment” for young airmen — one that will leave the world forever changed. And he said he is confident the Air Force will rise to the occasion.

“For our grandparents it was Pearl Harbor and our entry into” World War II, Goldfein said. “For most of us, it was 9/11. For today’s airmen, it is COVID-19. The common characteristic of each defining moment is the world never returned to where it was before the event.”

Stephen Losey is the air warfare reporter for Defense News. He previously covered leadership and personnel issues at Air Force Times, and the Pentagon, special operations and air warfare at He has traveled to the Middle East to cover U.S. Air Force operations.

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