Air Force May Miss End Strength Goals Amid Coronavirus Response Efforts, Official Says

·3 min read

The military service branches may fall short of their end-strength goals this year in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, which has slowed how many new recruits come into its basic training centers across the country, according to a top defense official.

Matt Donovan, undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, expressed that officials are bracing for impacts to the force in light of pandemic response and containment efforts, and cited specific concerns in end-strength and retention likely affected by weeks-long pauses in training as well as travel restrictions on some domestic travel until at least June 30.

At Air Force Basic Military Training, for example, "they've had to drop their [recruit] intake ... which of course leaves us with a gap if people are retiring and separating at the same level," Donovan said Tuesday during a video conference call, hosted by the Mitchell Institute.

Overall class sizes at BMT have been whittled down to 460 due to social distancing requirements; previously, groups of 650 to 800 prospective airmen would arrive at Lackland Air Force Base, in Texas each week.

Related: The Air Force Is Already Planning for the Return of Coronavirus, Top General Says

"I think because of the efforts put in place with the original travel restrictions [in March], that sort of clamped down, the services had to pause and figure out how they were going to do their throughput," Donovan. "I think though, in reality, we're probably going to be somewhat short of the end-strength goal."

Echoing other military leaders including Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein, Donovan said operations will be limited in various ways until a vaccine is developed.

"Constraints are going to be with us until we have a vaccine where it becomes more like smallpox or polio was, here once you got the vaccine, and you got the majority of the population vaccinated, then it kind of fades into the background," Donovan said.

"The services have all been very resilient with this and they immediately have put these social distancing or isolation plans into place.

"Whether it's for deployment or whether it's for basic training ... Is there going to be impact? Yes. But I think they're completely manageable," Donovan said.

The coronavirus pandemic has not altered the Pentagon's plans to keep tabs on troops in non-deployable status, even though operations and physical fitness requirements have been sidelined, Donovan added.

"There's been no halt to the [deploy-or-out policy]," he said. "[The Defense Department] has always had retention standards."

While the coronavirus has not affected the policy so far, Donovan didn't rule out future changes.

"I'm not saying that it never will," he said, "depending on what we learn about the virus and the effects on people, but at this point, no."

In 2017, then-Defense Secretary Jim Mattis announced a new policy -- known as "deploy or out" -- requiring each service to track and report non-deployable service members on a monthly basis to determine whether the troops were in a temporary or permanent status.

The policy, officially known as DoD Instruction 1332.45, "Retention Determinations for Non-deployable Service Members," took effect Oct. 1, 2018.

Since the policy took effect, officials have said that it is difficult to pinpoint exactly how many service members are affected because the "temporarily non-deployable" list fluctuates on a daily basis.

Pentagon officials could not provide the number of currently non-deployable troops, saying the decision to separate service members lies with the individual military branches.

"The services would have their numbers of non-deployable individuals, as they have the authority to make the final decision," DoD spokeswoman Jessica Maxwell told Military.com on Wednesday.

Even as the branches have cut or postponed programs -- like the physical fitness test -- amid the COVID-19 outbreak, officials have instructed personnel to still remain attentive, take necessary precautions, and maintain healthy and fit lifestyles.

-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at oriana.pawlyk@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @Oriana0214.

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