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Coronavirus has only “very low impact” on U.S. military: Esper

WASHINGTON — The coronavirus pandemic has only had a “very low impact” on the U.S. military and its “fight-tonight” status remains intact on the Korean Peninsula, Defense Secretary Mark Esper said Monday.


“To date, I can tell you that we’ve had a very low impact on readiness,” the U.S. defense chief said at an online think tank event. But he warned that there could be “greater impact” over time, such as in terms of training, if the virus shows no signs of ebbing.


Esper said that, of the country’s 2 million-strong military, fewer than 5,000 people have been infected with the coronavirus and fewer than 100 have been hospitalized. Two service members have died.


Out of more than 90 military vessels at sea, only two have been affected — aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt and the destroyer Kidd.


In the United States overall, the number of confirmed coronavirus cases has topped 1 million with a death toll exceeding 68,000, according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University.


“The force is holding pretty strong when it comes to the coronavirus,” Esper said at the webinar hosted by the Brookings Institution.


As for the longer-term implications, the defense secretary said the coronavirus has made it challenging to conduct large-scale training due to the higher risk of infections among military members.


“And that’s the one area when it comes to training that we’re concerned about, that over time it may have an accumulative impact,” especially when looking at how the United States trains with its allies, he said.


Esper also warned that China’s activity is ticking up in the South China Sea, citing an alleged sinking of a Vietnamese fishing boat by a China Coast Guard Ship in April. Beijing’s territorial claims in the sea are contested by several Southeast Asian nations.


“The Chinese have been a little bit more provocative in that part of the world,” Esper said, adding that the United States is closely watching China’s activities in the disputed waters.


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