There are no confirmed cases of COVID-19 among U.S. nuclear forces, and fewer than 50 people supporting the interservice group are self-quarantining because of possible exposure during the global pandemic, the commander of U.S. Strategic Command told reporters Tuesday.
“[W]e have zero people in Stratcom headquarters or in the components that have tested positive, so I have no cases of COVID[-19] right now,” Adm. Charles Richard said at the Pentagon during a briefing with reporters. Defense Daily joined the briefing through a telephone line. “[T]o this point, we have had no impact to our ability to accomplish our mission.”
That includes transferring custody of nuclear weapons to and from the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), part of the civilian Department of Energy and the agency responsible for servicing and modernizing the nuclear arsenal.
“Operationally we have not had a need to modify anything, so our operations continue normally,” Richard said when asked about military interactions with the NNSA. Administratively, however, “there have been some meetings that have been canceled where we’re doing them over VTC (video teleconferencing) right now.”
A Strategic Command (STRATCOM) spokesperson later said that, as of Tuesday, the services foresee no additional delays to ongoing and planned modernization programs because of COVID-19.
“We are confident the services, along with industry partners, are able to keep production related to modernization of our nuclear forces on track, while taking appropriate precautions to keep their workforces safe and healthy,” the spokesperson said.
On-time modernization of U.S. nuclear forces hinges on both NNSA-funded weapons programs and Pentagon-funded construction of new delivery vehicles and carriers going off without a hitch. The NNSA already has bottlenecks looming as it races to fix problems with components for a bomb and warhead already in the modernization pipeline. Meanwhile, the Pentagon wants to deploy new nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missiles, submarines and aircraft-delivered weapons all beginning in the early 2030s.
Meanwhile, Richard said, there are about 10 people at STRATCOM headquarters who have gone into self-quarantine after possible exposure to COVID-19, while the Air Force and Navy have “less than 20 [cases] each” of self-quarantine, among members supporting STRATCOM.
Richard told reporters to seek answers from the Air Force and the Navy as to why those personnel were in quarantine. STRATCOM headquarters personnel could be quarantined if they were “coming back off of travel or something like that, where you wanted to just be, in an abundance of caution, making sure that you gave them a chance to see if they would go symptomatic.”
STRATCOM is an interservice command that includes mostly Air Force and Navy assets carrying nuclear weapons, plus the communications infrastructure needed to launch them. These include: the Air Force’s land-based Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles in silos throughout Montana, North Dakota and Wyoming; the Navy’s fleet of 14 Ohio-class submarines, which carry Trident II D5 ballistic missiles; and the Air Force’s B-2 and B52-H strategic bombers in Louisiana, North Dakota and Missouri that can carry B61 gravity bombs and AGM-86B air-launched cruise missiles.
B52-H carries only cruise missiles.
COVID-19 is the viral disease caused by the novel coronavirus that broke out in Wuhan, China, in 2019. It is distinct from influenza, but shares many of the same symptoms of that disease: fever and respiratory distress, such as coughing and shortness of breath. There is not yet a vaccine for COVID-19, and the rapid spread of the disease is disrupting normal life across the globe.
The NNSA, for example, is sharply curtailing operations at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California after its host county, Alameda, ordered that citizens shelter in place, and that businesses cease most operations. The younger of the two U.S. nuclear weapon-design laboratories, Livermore is leading the NNSA’s drive to modernize the warheads for future air-launched cruise missiles, and future silo-based intercontinental ballistic missiles: respectively, the W80-4 and W87-1 warheads.
There were almost 200,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 worldwide as of Tuesday afternoon, according to a tracker operated by the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. There are more than 5,700 confirmed cases in the U.S., and just under 95 deaths attributed to the disease, most of which are among elderly people in Washington state.
COVID-19 has spread rapidly in the U.S., with confirmed cases increasing by nearly a factor of 20 within three weeks. Those without symptoms can still transmit the disease, which is thought to be most dangerous for the elderly and less dangerous for younger people. Far more people have recovered from COVID-19 than have died because of it, according to the Hopkins tracker.