WASHINGTON - With limited supplies of coronavirus tests available, the Pentagon is focusing first on testing those performing duties deemed most vital to national security. Atop the list are the men and women who operate the nation's nuclear forces, some counterterrorism forces, and the crew of a soon-to-deploy aircraft carrier.
Defense leaders hope to increase testing from the current rate of about 7,000 a day to 60,000 by June. This will enable them to test those showing symptoms as well as those who do not.
The current tight supply forced the Pentagon to take a phased approach, which includes testing sailors aboard the USS Nimitz, the Bremerton, Washington-based Navy carrier next in line to head to the Pacific. Officials hope to avoid a repeat of problems that plagued the virus-stricken USS Theodore Roosevelt. On Friday the Navy disclosed a virus outbreak aboard another ship at sea, the USS Kidd.
Despite President Donald Trump's assertion that testing capacity is not an issue in the United States, Pentagon officials don't expect to have enough tests for all service members until sometime this summer.
Defense Secretary Mark Esper recently approved the tiered approach. It expands the Pentagon's practice of testing mainly those who show symptoms of the virus to eventually testing everyone. Many virus carriers show no symptoms but can be contagious, as was discovered aboard the Roosevelt.
The aim is to allocate testing materials to protect what the military considers its most important missions, while not depleting supplies for high-risk groups in the civilian population, including the elderly at nursing homes and health care professionals on the front lines of battling the virus.
The first tier of U.S. troops are being tested this month, followed in May and June by the second-highest priority group: forces in combat zones such as Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. Next will be those abroad outside of war zones, like troops in Europe and aboard ships at sea, as well as those returning to the United States from overseas deployments.
Last in line: the remainder of the force.
Gen. John Hyten, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the first three groups could be fully tested by June. By then the Pentagon hopes to reach its goal of being able to conduct 60,000 tests per day. To complete testing of the entire force will take "into the summer," he said without being specific.
Hyten said that testing under this tiered approach started to step up in mid-April, and that it included a plan to fully test the crew of the Nimitz. The complications that come with trying to test for coronavirus aboard a ship while it's already underway were made clear with the Roosevelt, which pulled into port at Guam in late March after discovering its first infections. It wasn't able to test 100% of the crew until a few days ago.
Beyond its desire to limit the spread of the virus, the Pentagon views testing and associated measures such as isolating and quarantining troops as tools to keep the force viable and to ensure it can perform its central function: to defend the nation. At least 3,900 members of the military had tested positive, including more than 850 from the Roosevelt.
Military members, being fitter and younger than the general U.S. population, are thought to be less vulnerable to COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus. So far only two military members have died from it.
For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, and death.
The military's staggered approach to testing is necessary, officials said, because of limited supplies and incomplete knowledge about the virus.
"It is a supply issue right now, which is causing us not to be able to go down the full spectrum of all of the forces," Hyten said. "So we'll have to -- that's why we came up with the tiered approach."
Keeping coronavirus out of the nuclear force has been a high priority from the earliest days of this crisis. There are several reasons for that, including the Pentagon's view that operating those forces 24/7 is central to deterring an attack on the United States. Also, there are limited numbers of military personnel certified to perform those missions, which include controlling Minuteman 3 intercontinental ballistic missiles from cramped underground modules and operating nuclear-armed Ohio-class submarines.
Since early in the outbreak crisis, Minuteman 3 launch officers have been operating in the missile fields for 14 days at a time, an extraordinary arrangement for personnel who for years had done 24-hour shifts and then returned to base.
Gen. David Goldfein, the Air Force chief of staff, said Wednesday there are no COVID-positive cases in the nuclear force. That's a "no fail" mission, he said, that will have to work around the virus indefinitely.
Other first-tier forces, Goldfein said, are elements of the new Space Force, including those who operate Global Positioning System navigation satellites as well as the satellites that would provide early warning of a missile attack on the United States or its allies.
The Air Force and the other services are prioritizing testing in their own ranks, he said, "to make sure that as test kits become available, we're able to put them where they are most needed."
Goldfein said the military understands that the limited national supply of test kits means it cannot have all that it would like.
"One of the top priorities right now across the nation is nursing homes," he said. "I would not want to take tests away from that top national priority for my younger and healthier force. As tests become available, we've tiered them out and we know where we need to put them."