As infections balloon, coronavirus squeezes Europe’s armed forces

Soldiers patrol an empty Saint Mark's Square on Palm Sunday, following the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Venice, Italy

Military forces across Europe have scaled back operations and imposed stricter rules on personnel to try to stem the spread of the coronavirus among staff who often live and work in close quarters, making them more vulnerable to infection.

Preventing the virus’ proliferation among the military is important both for national security and because specialist army, navy and airforce units are being 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 U.S. aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt have highlighted the risk of the disease spreading rapidly among personnel. The nuclear-powered vessel with 5,000 crew is now docked in Guam, a U.S. territory, so everyone can be tested.

The U.S. Navy has relieved the ship’s captain of his command after he wrote a letter flagging concerns about a lack of proper measures to contain the highly infectious disease.

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

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

On Sunday, Turkey said it was limiting troop movements in Syria as cases of the coronavirus jumped.

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

French naval vessels in the Straits of Hormuz are no longer stopping at regional ports apart from Abu Dhabi, and air operations have been 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 on Friday, while four soldiers serving with the Barkhane operation against Islamist terrorists in West Africa are also infected.

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


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 had contracted COVID-19, the disease the coronavirus causes.

The Italian defence ministry would only give information on officers, saying Chief of Staff Salvatore Farina and a dozen others had tested positive. One lieutenant-colonel has died.

In Spain, which stands second behind the United States for the number of infections at more than 130,000, the defence ministry said 230 personnel had tested positive, while some 3,000 military staff are in self-isolation.

Spain’s chief of defence staff, Air Force General Miguel Angel Villarroya, said no naval operations had been affected by the virus, but the replacement of staff serving with the EU’s Atalanta operation off the Horn of Africa had been interrupted.

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

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

Among them are a handful of soldiers serving with a NATO mission in Lithuania, where they act as a deterrence against Russian interference. A military spokesman said manoeuvres had been suspended because of the coronavirus, even if the main objective of the mission remained in place.

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

But as infections may be starting to peak in Europe, a core concern is ensuring military personnel seconded to combat the virus are not themselves infected.

British authorities have been criticised for shortcomings in testing, with only around 65,000 tests conducted as of April 2 among a population of 66 million. The health secretary has promised 100,000 tests a day by the end of the month.

Military units are already helping with logistics and distribution of medical equipment around the country, but there is no clarity on how many have been tested.

“If the military is widely employed then about 20 percent of them will have it,” said Jack Watling, a senior research fellow focused on land forces at RUSI. “And if they start to deploy the military out to sites, they will have to use testing to ensure that they are not spreading the virus.”

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