Pentagon awaits $10B boost to fight outbreak

 politico.com  03/26/2020 14:04:46   BRYAN BENDER

With Sarah Cammarata, Lara Seligman, Connor OBrien and Jacqueline Feldscher

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 The Pentagon is in line to get an extra $10 billion to fight the coronavirus as part of a $2 trillion economic package.

 A deployed warship and Air Force boot camp in San Antonio reported cases of the virus as the deployment of 90,000 troops was halted for 60 days.

 The Marine Corps new redesign plan is already setting off a debate over whether it is going too far in retooling to confront China.

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SENATE PASSES STIMULUS : "The Senate late Wednesday unanimously approved a $2 trillion emergency package intended to stave off total economic collapse in the wake of the coronavirus crisis, bringing an end to more than five days of negotiations between senators and the Trump administration," POLITICO's Sarah Ferris, Melanie Zanona, and Heather Caygyle report.

"The measure  which comes after hours of delays over a dispute on jobless benefits  is the biggest economic rescue package in U.S. history. It includes direct checks to many Americans, a massive fund for beleaguered industries, immediate aid for hospitals and back-up cash for state and local governments."

The Senate is adjourning until April 20 for an extended recess. The bill is expected to pass the House by voice vote on Friday.

By the numbers: The Pentagon is set to get an extra $10.5 billion, our colleague Connor OBrien reports, including:

 $3.1 billion in personnel and operations and maintenance funding for active-duty, Reserve and National Guard troops;

 Just under $1.5 billion to sustain the deployment of up to 20,000 members of the Guard for the next six months to support coronavirus response efforts;

 Another $1 billion to purchase critical equipment under the Defense Production Act;

 $3.8 billion for the Defense Health Program, including $415 million for research and development of vaccines and antiviral pharmaceuticals.

The Department of Defense has a three-fold responsibility here: to protect our troops and their families, to defend our nation and to support the whole-of-government response to this pandemic," Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), chairman of the Armed Services Committee, said in a statement after the vote. "...This bill will give the Department the tools and resources it needs to continue these efforts...In particular, I want to highlight the flexibility we are providing to the Pentagon to support the defense industrial base, especially mission-critical small businesses, subcontractors and workforces."

The legislation prohibits the Pentagon from transferring any of the emergency money into its drug interdiction account, which has been used to fund a border wall.

The package also includes several provisions aimed at loosening contract and payment requirements and would permit Trump to extend the appointment of several top military officers.

Read the full Senate stimulus package.

Related: Lawmakers also inserted a provision providing billions of dollars of aid to struggling aerospace giant Boeing, via The Washington Post.

PAPER HEARINGS: The Senate Armed Services Committee has jettisoned in-person hearings amid the coronavirus outbreak, instead moving its questioning of defense officials to written format  an approach it calls paper hearings, OBrien also reports.

"While the committee is committed to continuing Congressional oversight and data collection necessary to drafting the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), to protect the health of everyone involved, traditional hearings are not possible under current conditions, the panel said in a statement.

The first test of the format comes today. SASC had originally planned for a hearing with Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy and Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville that will now be conducted through written questions and answers.

FORWARD HALT: Defense Secretary Mark Esper on Wednesday froze all movement of U.S. troops overseas for 60 days amid growing concerns about the outbreak.

The dramatic step, which affects an estimated 90,000 personnel, is intended to protect U.S. personnel and preserve the operational readiness of our global force, the Pentagon said in a statement.

The order included some exceptions. It does not cover scheduled deployments of most Navy ships and does not affect the reduction of troops in Afghanistan, which is scheduled to be complete within 135 days following the signed agreement, the Pentagon said.

Shipboard problem: Five more sailors aboard the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt have tested positive for the virus, bringing the total to eight, The Wall Street Journal reports. Its the first time the virus has hit a deployed ship.

Virus also hits Air Force basic training: The Air Force reported a trainee in San Antonio tested positive, while 40 others who may have come in contact with the person have been placed in restriction movement.

While a positive COVID-19 discovery is not desirable, the good news is we planned for this and our preparations worked, Lt. Gen. Brad Webb, commander of Air Education and Training Command, said in the statement. "The trainees were restricted during the incubation period and this allowed for limited exposure. Practices put into place allow for the identification of COVID-19, while limiting the pool of individuals who can be infected. We take preparing for worst case scenarios seriously and that planning has paid off.

More restrictions: Esper also issued new guidance raising the health condition level from Bravo to Charlie at all DoD installations globally, further restricting access to bases and in some cases requiring temperature checks.

What did he know and when? Pentagon press secretary Alyssa Farah said on Wednesday that Esper has been tracking the coronavirus threat very carefully since mid-January. But as several pointed out on Twitter, when Reuters reporter Phil Stewart asked Esper about the virus on Jan. 22, the defense secretary responded that he was not watching it closely. I just saw it on the news last night, so I'm not tracking that, he said.

The timing of the Pentagons actions was something of a theme on Wednesday. In a separate briefing, top weapons buyer Ellen Lord said she established a task force to address the pandemics impact on defense acquisition on Friday, a week after President Donald Trump declared a national emergency (more on that below). When asked how many ventilators and other equipment the Pentagon is providing to civilian hospitals, she seemed to struggle.

Fox News national security correspondent Jennifer Griffin tweeted that Ellen Lord, chief of DoD Acquisition, also doesn't appear to know how many excess ventilators the US military had in stock - said 200, meant 2000 - still woefully inadequate for crisis that Joint Chiefs warned about on Feb 1 with execute order.

Latest stats: On Wednesday, the Pentagon reported that a total of 227 service members had tested positive for the virus, along with 81 civilians, 67 dependents and 40 contractors.

Related: Army puts out call for retired medical personnel to help combat virus, via Washington Post.

Sign up for POLITICO Nightly: Coronavirus Special Edition, your daily update on how the illness is affecting politics, markets, public health and more.

NEW VIRUS TASK FORCE: Lord, the undersecretary of defense for acquisition, expanded on the Joint Acquisition Task Force during a meeting with reporters on Wednesday, our colleague Lara Seligman reports.

The task force will be the single entry point for requests for medical supplies coming into the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the departments of Health and Human Services and Homeland Security, and other federal agencies. Lord's office is also providing contractors a "heat map" that shows the number of coronavirus cases as well as state and local shelter-in-place rules and guidelines. "All of this information can help us with predictive solutions and planning when overlaid with the location of our industry partners," she said.

She also reported the vast majority of the defense industry is still working, but stressed California is a particular concern due to confusion between local, state and federal directives. The Defense Contract Management Agency has also established a portal for all defense industrial base companies to provide information on their operating status, Jennifer Santos, the deputy assistant secretary of Defense for industrial policy, told reporters.

FAR FROM SUFFICIENT: Dozens of national security veterans, including several retired four-stars, lent their voice on Wednesday to the growing bipartisan calls for Trump to use the Defense Production Act to meet the desperate need for medical supplies.

The private sector lacks the ability to process incoming requests, prioritize the most urgent needs, and coordinate with other companies absent more concerted government involvement, they write in an open letter organized by the Democratic-leaning group National Security Action. That is precisely what the DPA is designed to do.

Related: Trade group expects a lot more guidance from the Pentagon, via our colleague Jacqueline Feldscher.

And: Pentagon urges "hyper-vigilance" against foreign investment, via Defense News.

TAKING FLAK: The Marine Corps wants to ditch its tank battalions, trim its fighter squadrons and shave infantry units to remake the service as it faces down China. But before they worry about Beijing, the Corps has to get through Congress and critics first  and prove the concepts hold water, your Morning D correspondent reports.

Not everyone is on board yet with a plan geared toward the National Defense Strategy, and some worry its too heavily weighted toward one threat, to the exclusion of all others. "To be completely blunt I'm not 100 percent convinced yet," said Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.), a Marine veteran and member of the Armed Services Committee, in an interview.

 VA pauses non-urgent referrals to private docs citing pandemic: POLITICO Pro

 State Department struggles to help Americans stranded abroad: POLITICO Pro

 Ex-FBI agent missing in Iran presumed dead: The New York Times

 White House removed DHS official amid loyalty purge: POLITICO

 Moment of Honor on Medal of Honor Day: Medal of Honor Museum

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