Further facility closures at US bases in Europe possible as coronavirus spreads, Wolters says
By JOHN VANDIVER | STARS AND STRIPES Published: February 25, 2020
Some Army facilities in Italy could be shuttered beyond March 1 due to concerns related to the coronavirus, which the military expects will also have implications for troops in Germany, U.S. European Command’s top officer, Air Force Gen. Tod Wolters, told lawmakers Tuesday.
In Vicenza, Italy, the Army has closed on-base schools, child care centers, gyms and churches after a spike in coronavirus cases in the broader region. Military personnel also have been told not to travel to areas where clusters of confirmed cases have emerged.
Wolters said that there was a “50-50” possibility that the closures in Vicenza would be extended, in response to questions by Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., who cited Stars and Stripes reporting at the base.
The military is also prepared to execute a coronavirus prevention plan in Germany, which is home to tens of thousands of U.S. service members and their families.
“We’re anticipating an increase in the number of cases in Germany,” Wolters told the Senate Armed Services Committee during testimony.
The military overseas has been grappling with the rapid spread of coronavirus, particularly in South Korea, where a surge of cases has forced base access and troop movement restrictions. As cases increase in Europe, EUCOM officials have said command medical teams are closely monitoring for potential threats.
Wolters was in Washington to testify on EUCOM’s piece of the Pentagon’s 2021 budget request and the command’s role in countering Russia and China.
Wolters said he would like more support in countering Russia at sea, where he said Moscow’s submarine activity increased by 50% in 2019. EUCOM is generally effective at tracking Russian submarines, but “not 100% of the time,” he said.
Wolters called for two more Navy destroyers to be based at Rota, Spain. Past EUCOM commanders also have sought similar ship increases. But recent infrastructure work at the Navy’s Rota base now makes it possible, Wolters said.
China’s inroads into European infrastructure are also a concern, Wolters said. The Pentagon has warned allies to steer clear of China’s 5G technology, which it says poses an intelligence threat. Wolters also said he is worried about China’s investment in ports all over Europe, where it controls 10% of shipping rights in and out of the Continent.
“Those are daunting figures that should lead one to believe that we need to continue to be vigilant with respect to seaport equities,” Wolters said.