A 60-day ban on all non-essential domestic and international Defense Department travel is going to be extended, Defense Secretary Mark Esper confirmed to reporters Tuesday.
The Pentagon’s senior leadership is working on the final details of a modified stop-movement order, he said, with an announcement being prepped for later this week.
“While I understand the impact this has on our troops and their families this is a necessary measure to keep our people safe and our military ready to act,” Esper said.
While the travel ban has halted deployments, permanent change-of-station moves, training and temporary duty for schooling, officials have stressed it has been necessary to stop the spread of coronavirus throughout the force and throughout the communities with which troops interact.
That has included canceled deployments, extended deployments and hundreds of families stuck in limbo as they prepared to move duty stations ― sometimes having sent their families and household goods ahead, then spending the last month on their own without their belongings.
There are exceptions written into the policy, including for hardships, such as a family member with special needs, at the discretion of local commanders.
“We want to make sure we have a more comprehensive way in which we address exemptions,” Esper said.
Though the initial ban came down March 12 and was initially to last until May 12, the Pentagon has been reviewing the environment every 15 days.
“The important thing is as this virus unfolds and as our mitigation measures take place and as testing happens, etc., this is something that I committed … we will be reviewing this,” Esper said.
And testing, senior officials said, will play a role in the decisions made about restoring training and operations to normal.
As of Tuesday morning, the Defense Department had reported 4,769 total COVID-19 cases, including more than 2,600 in troops.
But it has not so far been DoD policy to do widespread testing of asymptomatic troops, even in units with a confirmed case.
“We want to make sure we devote those finite resources to the highest priority,” Thomas McCaffery, the deputy assistant defense secretary for health affairs told Military Times on Friday.
More than half of the Navy’s 950 cases are assigned to the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt, diagnosed because ship-wide testing following an outbreak that sidelined the flattop in Guam last week.
Esper acknowledged that more than 300 of the roughly 600 positive tests on the ship came from asymptomatic sailors, and that the understanding of asymptomatic carriers is figuring into the Pentagon’s next moves.
The Navy began imposing a 14-day quarantine period on ships preparing to get underway and ships returning home in March. Now, that policy includes pre-deployment testing for some vessels, Army Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Military Times.
Of particular interest is the nuclear submarine fleet, as well as Air Force nuclear bombers and tier 1 counter-terrorism units, as well as on-call rapid deployment units who have days’ warning to deploy in case of an emergency.
“Our desire, our aspiration is to expand testing, especially for groups that are probably going to be in tighter quarters – subs, bomber crews, basic trainees,” Milley said.
While DoD labs can test about 9,000 samples a day, he said, the objective is to get to 60,000 a day in the next six weeks or so.
Basic training is also of particular interest, Esper said.
Currently, the services have put a two-week freeze on bringing in new recruits, but that gap of thousands of new troops will have long-term effects for units who have been expecting them.
They would be one of the populations to get 100-percent testing, Esper said.
“... for me, basic trainees coming into the system into the pipeline, the ability to test them is important for future readiness,” he said.
Meghann Myers is the Pentagon bureau chief at Military Times. She covers operations, policy, personnel, leadership and other issues affecting service members.