May 28, 2020 | Policy Brief

COVID-19 and the U.S. Air Force

COVID-19 is testing every aspect of U.S. national defense readiness and mission execution. The Air Force is preparing for what the chief of staff, General David Goldfein, termed a “reset,” requiring the service to increase its ability to operate amid COVID-19 or in any other biologically contaminated environment.

Situation Overview

As of May 26, the Air Force had recorded a total of 813 COVID-19 cases, including 483 among uniformed airmen and 330 among civilians and contractors. Two contractors and one civilian have died. The Air Force recognizes that biological threats may be the new normal, whether they occur naturally, accidentally, or by way of attack. In response, the Air Force is attempting to update its strategy, regulations, and policies accordingly.

To ensure continuity of its most critical missions, Air Force installations around the world have implemented measures to protect personnel and minimize risk of infection. In March, the Pentagon enacted a 60-day stop-movement order, halting military travel and movement abroad to limit the spread of the coronavirus through the ranks.

Other measures range from modified shift schedules to shelter-in-place orders. In some cases, that has meant isolating key personnel on bases away from their families. The North American Aerospace Defense Command’s 24/7 command center at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado, for example, rotates personnel on 12-hour shifts, after which personnel return to “access-controlled cantonments,” isolated from each other to prevent potential infection.

Refreshed realization of biological threats also required instituting novel operating procedures to continue conducting exercises. In early April, for example, the United States and Israel completed a combined F-35 exercise known as Enduring Lightning. The two sides then conducted socially distanced post-exercise debriefs through secure communications technology.

General Goldfein acknowledged the success of various interim procedures implemented thus far, but called upon commanders to create and implement additional procedures that are sustainable for at least a year.

More broadly, in a recent message to commanders, General Goldfein called the current pandemic a “defining moment.” He noted, “[F]or our grandparents it was Pearl Harbor… For most of us, it was 9/11. For today’s airmen, it is COVID-19. The common characteristic of each defining moment is the world never returned to where it was before the event.”

COVID-19 in the USAF


Cumulative Cases Cumulative Deaths
Military 483 0
Civilian 217 1
Contractor 113 2
Total 813 3

Source: Air Force Magazine
Data current as of May 26.

COVID-19 in DoD


Cumulative Cases Cumulative Deaths
Military 6,221 3
Civilian 1,458 19
Contractor 602 9
Total 8,281 31

Source: DoD Covid-19 Update, Media Fact Sheet, May 28, 2020
Data current as of May 28.


As countries around the globe begin to ease restrictions, U.S. military personnel at home and abroad must be prepared for a predicted second spike in infections of COVID-19.

In general, the Air Force and other services are adopting modified procedures informed by previously established Ability to Survive and Operate and CBRNE (chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear, and explosives) strategies and policies. Military personnel are trained to respond and operate in contaminated environments. However, rather than preparing for naturally occurring or accidentally released pathogens, current joint and service-level policies focus on employable strategies for an adversary’s use of CBRNE weapons.

What to Watch for

Any actual or perceived reduction in military readiness may tempt adversaries to undertake aggressive or destabilizing actions. Deterring such behavior will require the Air Force, and DoD more broadly, to rethink how it defines biological threats and to refine training and contingency plans accordingly. Doing so will ensure that the Air Force is best prepared for future outbreaks – regardless of their source.

Andrea Stricker is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where Maj. Liane Zivitski is a visiting military analyst. Both also contribute to FDD’s Center on Military and Political Power (CMPP). For more analysis from Andrea, Liane, and CMPP, please subscribe HERE. Follow Andrea on Twitter @StrickerNonpro. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD and @FDD_CMPP. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy. Views expressed or implied in this commentary are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the Air University, the U.S. Air Force, the Defense Department, or any other U.S. government agency.


COVID-19 Military and Political Power Nonproliferation U.S. Defense Policy and Strategy