COVID-19: US Military Pursues War Games Amid Contagion

A robust schedule of military maneuvers and exercises is either underway or planned for Europe and the Pacific this year, with more in store for 2021, Ann Wright reports. 

Fleet of 15 partner nations, exercise Rim of the Pacific 2014. (DoD, Shannon Renfroe)

By Ann Wright

During the pandemic the U.S. military is running the largest maritime military maneuvers in the world, with Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) coming to the waters off Hawaii Aug. 17-31, bringing 26 nations, 25,000 military personnel, up to 50 ships and submarines and hundreds of aircraft.

Hawaii hasstringent measures to combat the spread of Covid-19, with a mandatory 14-day quarantine for all persons arriving in the state; returning residents as well as visitors. This quarantine is required until at least June 30, 2020.

The U.S. Army is also pursuing a 6,000-person war game in Poland, June 5-19, with a Polish airborne operation and a U.S.-Polish division-size river crossing.

If these weren’t too many military operations during an epidemic in which personnel on 40 U.S. Navy ships have come down with the hyper-contagious virus and during which military personnel and their families have been told not to travel, plans are also underway  for a U.S. Army division-sized exercise in the Indo-Pacific region  in less than a year.  Known as Defender 2021, the U.S. Army has requested $364 million to conduct the war exercises throughout Asian and Pacific countries.  

The pivot to the Pacific, begun under the Obama administration, and maintained by the Trump administration, is reflected in a U.S. National Defense Strategy (NDS) that sees the world as “a great power competition rather than counterterrorism and has formulated its strategy to confront China as a long-term, strategic competitor.” 

Earlier in May, the U.S. Navy sent at least seven submarines, including all four Guam-based attack submarines, several Hawaii-based ships and the San Diego-based USS Alexandria to the western Pacific in what the Pacific Fleet Submarine Force announced as simultaneous “contingency response operations” for all of its forward-deployed subs. This was all in support of the Pentagon’s “free and open Indo-Pacific ” policy — aimed at countering China’s expansionism in the South China Sea — and as a show of force to counter ideas that the capabilities of U.S. Navy forces have been reduced by Covid-19.

USS Theodore Roosevelt departs Apra Harbor following an extended visit to Guam in the midst of the Covid-19 global pandemic. (U.S. Marine Corps, Jordan E. Gilbert)

The U.S. military force structure in the Pacific will be changed to meet the National Defense Strategy’s perceived threat from China, beginning with the U.S. Marine Corps creating new infantry battalions that will be smaller to support naval expeditionary warfare and designed to support a fighting concept known as expeditionary advanced base operations

U.S. Marine forces will be decentralized and distributed across the Pacific on islands or floating barge bases. As the Marine Corps eliminates much of its traditional equipment and  units, the Marines plan to invest in long-range precision fires, reconnaissance and unmanned systems, doubling the number of unmanned squadrons.

To effect this change in strategy, Marine infantry battalions will go down to 21 from 24; artillery batteries will go to five down from two; amphibious vehicle companies will be reduced from six to four’ and F-35B and F-35C Lightning II fighter squadrons will have fewer aircraft per unit, from 16 aircraft down to 10. The Marine Corps will eliminate its law-enforcement battalions, its units that build bridges and will reduce the service personnel by 12,000 in 10 years.

A Hawaii-based unit called a “Marine Littoral Regiment”  is expected to have 1,800 to 2,000 Marines taken from the three infantry battalions based at Kaneohe Marine Base. Most of the companies and firing batteries that will make up a littoral anti-air battalion will come from units not currently stationed in Hawaii. 

The III Marine Expeditionary Force, based in Okinawa, Japan, the main Marine unit in the Pacific region, will be changed to have three Marine littoral regiments that are trained and equipped to operate within contested maritime areas. The region will also have three Marine expeditionary units that are globally deployable. The other two Marine expeditionary force units will provide forces to the III MEF.

The U.S. military war games in Europe, “Defender Europe 2020,” is already underway with troops and equipment arriving at European ports. It will cost about $340 million, which is roughly in line with what the U.S. Army is requesting for fiscal year 2021, which begins Oct. 1, for the Pacific version of the Defender series of war maneuvers. 

It will take place at Drawsko Pomorskie Training Area in northwest Poland. More than 6,000 U.S. and Polish soldiers will participate the exercise, named Allied Spirit.  It was originally scheduled for May, and is linked with Defender-Europe 2020, the Army’s largest exercise in Europe in decades. Defender-Europe was largely canceled because of the pandemic.

U.S. Army Reserve soldiers check vehicles once they arrive to Fallingbostel, outside of Bergen-Hohne, Germany, in preparation for DEFENDER-Europe 20 on Feb. 8, 2020. (Dod, Joseph Bush)

U.S. Army Europe is planning additional exercises over the coming months focusing on training objectives originally outlined for Defender-Europe, including working with equipment from pre-positioned stocks in Europe and conducting airborne operations in the Balkans and Black Sea region.

In the current 2020 fiscal year, ending Sept. 30, the Army will conduct a smaller version of Defender Pacific while Defender Europe will get more investment and focus. But then attention and dollars will swing over to the Pacific in fiscal-year 2021.  Defender Europe will be scaled back next year. The Army is requesting just $150 million to conduct the exercise in Europe, according to the Army.

The U.S. military has 85,000 troops permanently stationed in the Indo-Pacific region and is expanding its longstanding series of exercises called  Pacific Pathways by extending the time Army units are in countries in Asia and the Pacific, including in the Philippines, Thailand,  Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei.  A division headquarters and several brigades would have a South China Sea scenario where they will be around the South China Sea and the East China Sea over the course of a 30- to 45-day period.  

In 2019, under the Pacific Pathways exercises,  U.S. Army units were in Thailand for three months and four months in the Philippines. The U.S. Army  is in discussions with the Indian government about expanding military exercises from roughly just a few hundred personnel up to 2,500 for a duration of up to six months — which “gives us a presence in the region longer as well without being permanently there,” according to the U.S. Army of the Pacific commanding general.  Breaking from the larger exercise, smaller U.S. Army units will deploy to countries such as Palau and Fiji to participate in exercises or other training events.

The Los Angeles-class fast-attack submarine USS Alexandria (SSN 757) transits Apra Harbor as part of regularly scheduled operations in the Indo-Pacific on May 5, 2020. (U.S. Navy/ Randall W. Ramaswamy)

In May, 2020, the Australian government announced that a delayed six-month rotation of 2,500 U.S. Marines to a military base in Australia’s northern city of Darwin will go ahead based on strict adherence to Covid-19 measures including a 14-day quarantine. The Marines had been scheduled to arrive in April but their arrival was postponed in March because of the pandemic.

The remote Northern Territory, which had recorded just 30 Covid-19 cases, closed its borders to international and interstate visitors in March, and any arrivals must now undergo mandatory quarantine for 14 days.  U.S. Marine deployments to Australia began in 2012 with 250 personnel and have grown to 2,500.    

The Joint U.S. Defense facility Pine Gap— the U.S. Department of Defense, Five Eyes and CIA surveillance facility that pinpoints airstrikes around the world and targets nuclear weapons, among other military and intelligence tasks — was also adapting its policy and procedures to comply with Australian government COVID restrictions.

As the U.S. military expands its presence in Asia and the Pacific, one place it will NOT be returning to is Wuhan, China.  In October 2019, the Pentagon sent 17 teams with more than 280 athletes and other staff members to the Military World Games in Wuhan. Over 100 nations sent a total of 10,000 military personnel to the games in Wuhan last October.

The presence of a large U.S. military contingent in Wuhan just months before the outbreak of the Covid-19 in Wuhan in December 2019, fueled a theory by some Chinese officials that the U.S. military was somehow involved in the outbreak, which now has been used by the Trump administration and its allies in Congress and the media that the Chinese deliberately used the virus to infect the world and adding justification for the U.S. military build-up in the Pacific region.

Ann Wright served 29 years in the U.S. Army/Army Reserves and retired as a colonel.   She was a U.S. diplomat for 16 years and served in U.S. Embassies in Nicaragua, Grenada, Somalia, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Micronesia, Afghanistan and Mongolia.  She resigned from the U.S. government in March 2003 in opposition to President George W. Bush’s war on Iraq. She is co-author of “Dissent: Voices of Conscience.”

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10 comments for “COVID-19: US Military Pursues War Games Amid Contagion

  1. evelync
    May 28, 2020 at 15:14

    Millions of lives lost millions more ruined. $trillions of dollars wasted on what….
    All to siphon taxpayer dollars to the MCIMATT.
    We’ve been had.

    The leadership has proved its incompetence on achieving stability sustainability
    We all see right through the curtain at the weakness of the wizard of OZ…to serve the interests of the vast majority…

    Their only success, besides stealing public funds for short term financial interests is the ruthless punishment of the whistleblowers who risk everything to tell us of wrongdoing done in our name with our tax dollars.

    They all lie to themselves and to us….
    We’re heading off a financial, environmental, planetary cliff

  2. CMCasey
    May 28, 2020 at 14:09

    I wonder what happened to Captain Crozier? Did he get well? Is he still in the Navy? How many of his sailors are still sick—-and what happened to the people of Guam when the Navy ship went there? How many citizens of Guam became ill because of the military being there ? How much will these military games cost tax payers? How many people who attended the October 2019 Military Games in China got sick, and which countries did they come from? —-How will all these ships help to fight the coming climate disaster? Finally, why doesn’t the military know how much money it has spent? Are other government departments able to receive funding without explaining where the money went?

  3. Francis Lee
    May 28, 2020 at 03:35

    Have the US military, MIC, NSA and deranged neo-con day-dreamers completely lost their collective marbles?! Playing silly little war games, at an enormous costs, to fight unwinnable wars, which threaten the whole of humanity!

    They should take a note from the British experience. Anglo-Afghan Wars, also called Afghan Wars, three conflicts (1839–42; 1878–80; 1919) in which Great Britain, from its base in India, sought to extend its control over neighbouring Afghanistan and to oppose Russian influence there – all of which ended in ignominious and costly defeats.

    But the Americans soldier on regardless. In Graham Greene’s novel set in Vietnam during the French occupation, ‘The Quiet American’, one of the characters, Aiden Pyle, an American aid worker, who is actually working for the CIA, berates the French for their pusillanimous handling of the war and insists that the US will make a much better fist of it. Of course he was wrong, but such is American hubris.

    But they still haven’t learnt!

  4. Hide Behind
    May 27, 2020 at 12:26

    US is losing an economic war, not a military conflict, and it is by their own undoing.
    China has not used its military to influence or attacked any nation in many years, and that through trade policies has grown its worldwide acceptance into many nations economies with no demands upon those nations to increase their military expenditures, such as is being done by US and their European NATO allies.
    We hear much about US hi-tech being world leader but vast portions of that tech, and the necessary brain power, were and are being diverted into military not domestic industry.
    The vast majority of US populace has seen nothing but negative returns from military expenditures, with proceeds going to primarily a small portion of the Scientific-Educational, Financial Institution, and the military industrial complex including the growth of a private-corporate Mercenary Security Complex.
    This has all been done by the US population at large being outright complicit , covertly and deliberately ignorant and complacent, they are not guiltless of war footing and an increasingly police state government.

  5. Pablo Diablo
    May 27, 2020 at 11:08

    Ah, YES, the USA military has done so well in Iraq and Afghanistan ($6.2 TRILLION) that those two Wars might end in another 20 years. We better start a few more to justify the criminal military budget.
    Last year the World spent $1.6 TRILLION on weapons and something invisible brought the Human Race to a standstill. Think if we had spent half of that on medical equipment, facilities, and medicine.
    And, don’t worry about 1 in 4 children growing up in poverty, they can join the military to get fed.

  6. KiwiAntz
    May 27, 2020 at 01:21

    Why does this Nation persist with these phoney displays of Military Might? Everyone knows this Country is a laughingstock & a joke that is incapable of winning a War, it can’t even beat a Virus due to the stupidity of it’s Leaders? Just like the Roman Empire, Imperial overreach, Hubris, imbecilic arrogance & a utter tone deaf ignorance are the Hallmarks of the decline & collapse of this American Empire? In the depths of a Global Pandemic which has killed 100 thousand Americans & infected 1.7 million of its own people, this ridiculous American Empire & its bloated Military prepares to fight imaginary enemies that don’t exist, wasting billions of fake dollars on useless, worthless weapons of War, but can’t put any funds towards helping eliminate the real & actual threat of the WuFlu Pandemic? With the US Economy in tatters & heading towards a new Great Depression with 50 million unemployed & its people lining up for miles, around the blocks for food parcels in their fancy vehicles, America & its braindead Govt continue to throw money down the crapper of the MIC! The US Federal Reserve Bank can’t generate the fake currency fast enough, as it prints & prints, trillions of fake counterfeit currency to oblivion to prop up its failed Military State Nation? Once the World rejects this phoney US Dollar & realises it can’t stay the Reserve currency, the gigs up? Hyperinflation will come to the dying Empire, which will mean no more wasted spending on Military adventurism & no more bullyboy behaviour, sanctions & illegal Wars committed by the Empire? It’ll be GAME OVER!

    • bob lich
      May 27, 2020 at 06:54

      Well said.

    • Jim other
      May 29, 2020 at 11:42

      Most devoutly to be wished! These power mad idiots feel they are lords of the world. To what end.
      The military economy is immoral!

  7. May 26, 2020 at 20:10

    This looks like cover. The extent of viral infections amongst Western forces is secret but if the suspicion our ability to mount attacks has been compromised and we are unable to man our submarines, etc., we might invite trouble, hence the publicity for war games.

    • May 27, 2020 at 19:12

      Another day…another exercise against the latest bogeyman. Soviets, NKs, Vietnamese, moslems, Russians…now back to China…I’m wondering when Germany will return as a bogeyman.

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