Pentagon considers new moves, including Stop Loss program, to maintain force amid coronavirus crisis
By MISSY RYAN | The Washington Post | Published: April 7, 2020
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The Pentagon is considering new steps to retain uniformed service members, including the potential revival of the military's controversial "stop-loss" policy, as the coronavirus crisis limits the arrival of new troops and disrupts its personnel pipeline.
Officials said that implementing the stop-loss policy, employed during the George W. Bush administration as years of grueling combat in Iraq and Afghanistan strained the force, was among the measures being considered but was not the preferred option.
"Given the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the nation as a whole and on the military's ability to recruit and train new service members, the Department is looking at a wide range of options that will ensure enduring national security mission capability," Defense Department spokeswoman Lisa Lawrence said in a statement. Covid-19 is the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. She said there had been no formal recommendation to take that step and no decisions had been made.
Lawrence said that stop-loss — which can retain enlisted troops beyond their planned departure date, delay officers' retirement and lengthen reserve troops' active-duty service — would "only be considered if absolutely necessary and is an alternative that we will work diligently to avoid."
Officials said the department's top official for personnel issues, Undersecretary for Personnel and Readiness Matthew Donovan, is developing draft guidance that if approved would allow the services to suspend planned promotions, retirements and other exits, and potentially to implement the stop-loss policy.
It was not immediately clear what other steps might be taken first, but current and former officials and outside experts said they could include allowing service members who already have put in their retirement papers to delay their exits, withdrawing approval for planned exits from the military or offering troops financial incentives to stay longer.
Consideration of the new steps comes as Pentagon leaders scramble to protect personnel from the COVID-19 pandemic while attempting to minimize disruption of the Defense Department's core security mission. As the country reels from hundreds of thousands of confirmed cases, the military also is providing assistance to civilian authorities, including help with constructing and staffing health facilities.
As of Tuesday morning, more than 1,500 uniformed troops had tested positive for the virus, and most of them had mild to moderate symptoms, officials say.
For weeks, senior U.S. military officials have weighed options about what to do if there are large coronavirus outbreaks at recruit training centers. In one Navy memo obtained by The Washington Post last month, military officials suggested that a stop-loss order might need to be explored.
To help contain the spread, military officials have paused or restricted training recruits. On Monday, Army officials said that the entry of recruits into basic combat training would be delayed by two weeks to ensure the health of incoming personnel and those around them.
If approved, the measures under discussion would seek to ensure the force doesn't undergo a dangerous contraction, and they follow other steps to maximize the military's virus response capability. The Trump administration already has authorized the Pentagon to activate personnel from the National Guard, reserve units and Ready Reserves, as it also issues calls for volunteers, especially those with medical training, who want to return to service.
But the use of stop-loss has been an unpopular move in the past. During the Iraq War, when it was used heavily by the Army, critics referred to it as a "backdoor draft." In 2009, then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates called for the practice to be minimized.
Brad Carson, who served as acting undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness during the Obama administration, said consideration of a stop-loss policy was wise as the coronavirus challenges a military personnel system he characterized as a "well-oiled machine." Under that system, each year's cohort of retiring officers and other departing troops is compensated for by the entry of several hundred thousand recruits.
"Given that training in general has had to grind to a halt, it definitely seems prudent to give the services the flexibility to use stop-loss as a way to keep billets filled so that the readiness hole that covid causes for us isn't even deeper," Carson said.
Todd Harrison, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said such a move could help the military get closer to meeting its yearly troop-level targets. Most of the military's vast recruiting enterprise already has moved online as a result of the outbreak, posing a further challenge to getting troops into the pipeline.
But, he said, "I think the services and current team of leadership are going to be reluctant to use things like stop-loss because it does cause a pretty big hit in morale. It could be viewed as breaking a promise with service members."
Any new steps could target retaining people with certain specialties, including medical personnel, who are now in especially high demand. The military has dispatched two hospital ships to assist with the virus response and medical personnel to New York City, the area hardest hit by the U.S. outbreak.
Harrison said officials should consider other factors when making plans for how the crisis will affect the military workforce, including the economic upheaval the virus is causing.
If unemployment spikes dramatically, troops could choose to stay in the military, where they have health care and a steady salary, and more civilians might sign up to serve. A military pilot planning to leave for a job in commercial aviation may rethink that move, for example, at a moment when stay-at-home orders are gutting the travel industry.
"They ought to wait to see what economic conditions develop and how servicemembers respond to that," he said. "This is a problem that could correct itself."
The Washington Post's Julie Tate and Dan Lamothe contributed to this report.