The COVID-19 crisis has rightly evoked passionate debate regarding the delicate balance between public safety and the re-opening of the economy. In some respects, there is an analogous debate within military circles between the resumption of training as usual to preserve readiness and mitigating health risks. As former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld famously quipped, “You go to war with the army you have, not the army you might want or wish to have at a later time,” but what if that force is not healthy, much less prepared to go to other COVID hotspots?

In search of the right balance between readiness and safety, responses across the military have varied widely. On the one hand, senior leaders have extended stop-move and openly questioned the utility of haircuts. The wear of personal protective equipment, such as handmade masks, continues to increase across many posts. On the other hand, it is the military’s role to provide options for the president. And even as COVID-19 delays some activities, there is a genuine need to resume others that keep our forces prepared for contingency operations. So, how might we do so smartly and bolster the resilience of the force?

It appears that protocols put in place around major installations, on balance, have successfully mitigated the community spread of COVID-19. Here at Fort Campbell, the fusion of activities across the installation has kept our soldiers and their families safe. Wellness checks are routine as is the use of virtual platforms when hands-on training is not practicable. The preventative measures, such as social distancing, have enabled units to train well beyond basic functions, and in some instances, safely deploy medical providers to assist domestic response efforts.

Exact numbers of the infected population remain privileged information, and further analysis is needed to determine how effective control measures were, in retrospect, across military installations. Indeed, the actual infection rate remains unknown for a variety of reasons, and the data available to commanders is limited to the number of positive cases, the number of those tested, and comparative data from surrounding communities. The availability of test kits, as well as existing protocols focused primarily on symptomatic patients only, contributes to this knowledge gap.

The Department of Defense recently presented plans for a four-tier testing system, prioritizing deployed and strategic deterrence units, which is a laudable effort and a step in the right direction. As resources become available, however, there is a need for random testing to more accurately determine installations’ infection rates. This effort would also better account for those untested (potential) asymptomatic carriers. An analysis of this information should be compared to other installations to determine whether prevention protocols were successful and would inform policymakers in the event of a future pandemic. Furthermore, if antibodies (an admittedly large “if”) provide a viable guard against COVID-19, random testing would provide a list of potential donors and bolster the resilience of our force.

In the interim, installations should continue to develop criteria to guide the resumption of training beyond distributed learning, but do so with caution. In military parlance, a “warm start” that gradually eases units back into pre-COVID-19 training levels is needed. Such an approach also allows commanders to quickly adjust in the event of a second wave. Diligence in doing so, as well as rigorous analysis of our most recent efforts, is expected of professional armies. Moreover, it bolsters efforts to make our forces resistant to similar shocks and gives us an advantage over potential adversaries who don’t make a similar commitment to advancing readiness and protecting the health and safety of their forces.


Jaron S. Wharton is a lieutenant colonel and infantry officer in the 101st Airborne Division. He most recently served as the chief of staff to the deputy national security advisor for strategy on the National Security Council. He is a graduate of the United States Military Academy and holds advanced degrees from both Harvard and Duke, where he earned his PhD in Public Policy.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.


Image credit: Patrick A. Albright, US Army