Coronavirus squeezing European armed forces

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Military forces across Europe scaled back operations and imposed stricter rules on personnel to stem the spread of the coronavirus among staff living and working in close quarters, making them more vulnerable to infection.

Preventing the virus’ proliferation among the military is important for national security and because specialist army, navy and air force units are drafted in to help governments tackle the virus in many countries.

Germany mobilised 15 000 soldiers to help local authorities tackle the crisis, for example, while Poland activated thousands of troops to patrol streets under lockdown, disinfect hospitals and support border control, its defence ministry said.

Events aboard the US aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt highlighted the risk of the disease spreading rapidly among personnel. The nuclear-powered vessel with a crew of 5 000 is docked in Guam, a US territory, so all can be tested.

The US Navy relieved the ship’s captain of his command after he wrote flagging concerns about proper measures to contain the highly infectious disease.

In France, Italy and Spain, among nations hardest hit by the outbreak, military operations have been curtailed and in some cases suspended.

Germany changed rules, with no roll calls or mustering of troops and the quarantining of some staff, while Turkish armed forces imposed social distancing in mess rooms and dormitories, among others.

Turkey is limiting troop movements in Syria as cases of the coronavirus escalated.

“We have had to cancel non-essential maritime missions and deployments or modify their scope,” French army command spokesman Colonel Frederic Barbry, said adding there was as yet been no impact on “operational capability”.

French naval vessels in the Straits of Hormuz no longer stop at regional ports apart from Abu Dhabi. Air operations are affected with exercises cancelled and delays in relieving aircraft in some theatres, Barbry said.

In France, 600 military personnel have contracted the virus, the defence minister said, while four soldiers serving with the Barkhane operation against Islamist militants in West Africa are infected.

“There will be an impact from this crisis, not only in resources available for defence and security but in how those resources are distributed,” said Malcolm Chalmers, deputy-director of the Royal United Services Institute.

HELPING AND INFECTING?

Testing of military personnel is critical, but it is unclear how widespread it is. Britain and Turkey declined to say how many military personnel had been tested or contracted COVID-19, the disease the coronavirus causes.

The Italian defence ministry gave information on officers only, saying Chief of Staff Salvatore Farina and 12 others tested positive. A lieutenant-colonel died.

In Spain, second behind the US for the number of infections at over 130 000, the defence ministry said 230 personnel tested positive, with 3 000 military staff in self-isolation.

Spain’s chief of defence staff, Air Force General Miguel Angel Villarroya, said naval operations were not affected by the virus, but rotation of staff serving with the EU’s Atalanta operation off the Horn of Africa was interrupted.

“We had to postpone and repatriate staff who were to replace those on the mission because a person was infected,” he told a news conference.

A German defence ministry spokesman said around 250 soldiers were infected, with less than 10 hospitalised.

Among them are soldiers serving with a NATO mission in Lithuania, where they act as a deterrence against Russian interference. The spokesman said manoeuvres were suspended because of the coronavirus, while the main objective of the mission remained in place.

German troops going to Afghanistan are being put in 14 days of self-isolation first. Four Italian soldiers deployed to Kabul tested positive when they arrived. Some 200 of 800 Italian soldiers in Iraq are returning home.

As infections apparently peak in Europe, a core concern is ensuring military personnel seconded to combat the virus are not infected.

British authorities are criticised for shortcomings in testing, with 65 000 tests conducted as of April 2 in a population of 66 million. The health secretary promised 100 000 tests a day by month-end.

Military units are helping with logistics and distribution of medical equipment, but there is no clarity on how many were tested.

“If the military is widely employed then about 20% will have it,” said Jack Watling, a senior research fellow focused on land forces at RUSI. “If they start to deploy the military to sites, they will have to test to ensure they are not spreading the virus.”