War Stories

Does It Matter That the Top Level of the U.S. Military Is in Quarantine?

Milley wearing his uniform and a camo-patterned mask.
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley on Capitol Hill on July 9. Greg Nash/Getty Images

The entire top echelon of the U.S. military is in quarantine, and perhaps the strangest thing is that it doesn’t seem to have much, if any, effect on national security, for better or for worse.

The quarantine began Monday night, in what officials are calling “an abundance of caution,” after the No. 2 admiral in the Coast Guard, who had taken part in a meeting of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, tested positive for COVID-19. The four-star generals and admirals now in isolation include the JCS chairman, the Army and Air Force chiefs of staff, the chief of naval operations, the commandants of the Marines and the Coast Guard, and the head of Cyber Command, who doubles as the director of the National Security Agency.

Yet Pentagon press spokesman Jonathan Hoffman, in announcing the move, said, “There is no change to the operational readiness or mission capability of the U.S. armed forces.” He’s almost certainly right.

One reason is that top officers have long been accustomed to communications through remote video links; their homes are outfitted with special gear that can securely handle the most highly classified transmissions.

But another reason is that the chiefs play no role in the chain of command for military operations. As the uniformed leaders of their services, they help devise and approve plans, budgets, and personnel policies; they also advise the defense secretary and the president on military matters. (The JCS chairman is designated the military adviser to the president.) But ever since a major reform passed in 1986, orders to mobilize for wars, and to fight them, go from the president to the secretary of defense to the relevant combatant commanders, who supervise multiservice military operations by region (e.g., Pacific Command, European Command, Central Command) or by function (e.g., Strategic Command, Cyber Command, Transportation Command).

One of the officers in quarantine, Gen. Paul Nakasone, head of Cyber Command, is a combatant commander, but his dual role as NSA director gives him access to the most secure communications. Chris Inglis, former deputy director of the NSA, told me in an email that deputies for the NSA and Cyber Command—and, in fact, deputies for all the chiefs and commands—“generally participate in all activities” rather than focus “on some separable portfolio.” That means that if the top officers are away, the deputies “are prepared 24/7 to continue ongoing ops without skipping a beat.”

Yet the pandemic has taken a tangible toll on military operations and planning. By nature, war—training for it, mobilizing for it, and fighting it—involves packing soldiers, sailors, and aircrews into tight formations or, in some cases, tight quarters. If one of the packed-in fighters gets the virus, it can spread easily and widely.

According to the Pentagon’s own statistics, 47,117 military personnel have been stricken by COVID-19. More than 32,022 have recovered. Eight have died, as have 60 civilian Defense Department employees. The most alarming incident took place in March, when an outbreak on board the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt—on routine operations in the Pacific—infected 1,000 of the 4,800 sailors on board. The ship’s captain, Bret Crozier, steamed into the nearest harbor and ordered an accelerated evacuation in order to save his crew—only to be fired by the civilian secretary of the Navy for going outside the chain of command. The secretary—who was acting either under pressure or in anticipation of pressure from President Trump—resigned after absorbing the storm of dismay that his move had unleashed. But Crozier—cheered by his crew as a hero when he departed from his ship—was not reinstated, sending the Navy’s rank and file a dismal message about the priorities of the top brass.

The virus has upended questions of war and peace, to a degree as yet unknown, at the highest levels of government. The infection of Donald Trump himself—the commander in chief, still endowed with the unilateral power to destroy the world—is the most obvious and shuddering case in point. At least 27 members of his inner circle, including some of his closest aides, have tested positive. Once-packed corridors of the West Wing are deserted, as many not yet infected are keeping their distance. Across the river, in the Pentagon, more than 20 members of the Joint Chiefs’ staff have quarantined themselves. Who knows where the trail will end, especially since Trump persists in going maskless while meeting with colleagues, even though he isn’t merely at risk of getting COVID—he has it.

Meanwhile, Vice President Mike Pence, who has tested negative (perhaps an indication of his distance from true power), is campaigning across battleground states as the absent Trump’s proxy. Various other top aides—White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, economic adviser Larry Kudlow, and the president’s physician Sean Conley—can’t keep their cover stories straight about how sick Trump is and who’s doing what to fill the gap of authority. Other aides tell reporters they frankly don’t know what’s going on because either nobody is telling them or they don’t believe what they’re told.

In short, who’s in charge? Nobody knows. Maybe nobody is. Presumably, various ambassadors, diplomats, officers, and so forth have called their foreign counterparts to assure them—and, in some cases, warn them—that nothing has changed in U.S. commitments and capabilities. But nobody, including those making the calls, has much reason to believe these messages either. It’s unclear whether all this makes adversaries more or less tempted to test the waters. But at some level, we—which is to say, all of us who breathe the same air on this planet—have good reason to be a bit terrified.