At least two dozen exercises involving Marines have been canceled or scaled back over concerns with the rapidly spreading COVID-19 virus.
Several large-scale exercises involving Marines in Europe, the Arctic region and the Pacific — areas critical to address Russia, China and the return of great power competition — have been canceled or signficantly scaled back as COVID-19 continues to disrupt U.S. military operations and planning across the globe.
Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. David Berger has pushed back against criticisms that the Corps has continued to pursue training missions despite the ongoing pandemic. The top Marine has voiced the importance of maintaining readiness despite stay-at-home orders issued by governors across the U.S.
“We train so that we can be ready to go,” Berger, said in a video posted March 5. “We never get the chance to pick the next crisis, where it happens, when it happens.”
The canceled training events are a setback for the Corps’ plans to overhaul its force and prepare Marines to fight against more sophisticated and tech-adept forces.
“The decision to continue or cancel an exercise is situationally dependent and risk-based,” Capt. Joseph Butterfield, a Marine spokesman said.
“Our leaders will continue to implement precautionary measures during mission-essential exercises to protect the health of Marines while maintaining mission-readiness,” Butterfield said.
Berger says he’s been asked why the Corps can’t just “stop training” or why do the Marines need to continue “recruit training in the middle of this terrible virus."
Berger responded in the video that when Marines and the Navy are called up by the president to act “we respond immediately."
“So we must continue to train," the top Marine said. The nation relies on the Corps “especially in tough times,” he said.
A number of Marine rotations overseas are on pause following a Defense Department freeze on travel. Marine deployments to Norway and Australia are currently in limbo.
A number of Marines are stuck in Italy, Spain and Norway awaiting the arrival of a new rotation.
The Corps says the following exercises were either canceled or scaled back “out of an abundance of caution”:
Weapons and Tactics Instructor 2-20: The exercise known as the Weapons and Tactics Instructor course — which was deemed mission essential by the top Marine — was slated to run from March 8 through April 26. The exercise, based out of Yuma, Arizona, was canceled in late March following a confirmed COVID-19 case aboard the Yuma air station. The WTI exercise hones Marine skills in air and ground integration.
Integrated Training Exercise 3-20: An integrated training exercise aboard Twentynine Palms involving Camp Pendleton, California, based 3rd Battalion, 1st Marines, is no longer scheduled to kick off in April, Berger said.
Adversary Force Training Exercise 3-20: The adversary force training exercise is a service level exercise and was slated to take place aboard Twentynine Palms. All units with the 1st Marine Division will continue to train aboard their home stations “until further notice” as the Corps continues to implement policies to help stem the spread of COVID-19, I Marine Expeditionary Force told Marine Corps Times in an emailed statement. The Corps could push modified versions of the ITX and AFX exercises in the future as COVID-19 conditions improve.
Mountain Training Exercise 3-20: The mountain training exercise is held aboard the Mountain Warfare Training Center in Bridgeport, California. The Corps announced in March that exercises aboard Bridgeport and Twentynine Palms were being canceled or scaled back over COVID-19 concerns.
Korean Marine Exchange Program 20.2: The KMEP exercise helps build interoperability and camaraderie between U.S. Marines and Republic of Korea Marines.
Bersama Warrior: Bersama Warrior is an annual bilateral exercise hosted by Malaysia and sponsored by U.S. Indo-Pacific Command.
Cold Response: Norwegian authorities canceled the remaining portion of a large scale Arctic exercises dubbed Cold Response over coronavirus fears, U.S. European Command announced. Cold Response kicked off in Norway on March 9 and was slated to run through March 18. The exercise included roughly 15,000 troops from the U.S., Norway and eight other allied countries. Roughly 1,500 U.S. troops were scheduled to participate in the Arctic exercise from all four service branches.
Asgard Skjold 20: This exercise was also slated to take place in Norway.
Juniper Cobra 20: U.S. European Command announced in early March that it was canceling the remaining portion of a joint missile defense exercise in Israel known as Juniper Cobra over COVID-19 concerns. Juniper Cobra is a joint Israel-U.S. missile defense exercise that officially kicked off March 3 and was slated to last until March 13.
Dynamic Front 20: Dynamic Front was scheduled to be a linked exercise with the larger Defender Europe exercise in Europe. Dynamic Front hones skills in long-range fires.
Saber Strike 20: This was also a linked exercise with the larger Defender Europe training evolution. The exercise is often focused on the Baltic States and helps allies train and practice interoperability among partner forces.
African Lion 20: Nearly 3,800 U.S. troops were scheduled to participate in Africa Lion, which was slated to take place in Morocco.
Balikitan: The exercise hosted by the Philippines was slated to take place in May. The exercise was canceled over COVID-19 concerns. The exercise was still scheduled to take place despite Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte scrapping the Visiting Forces Agreement. The security pact allows U.S. troops to train in the country.
Other exercises that were either canceled or scaled back include Eager Defender, Falcon Claw, Iron Defender, Eastern Defender, Fuji Viper, Artillery Relocation Training Program, New Horizons, Tradewinds, Croix Du Sud, Neptune Eagle and a combined command post training event, according to the Marine Corps.
Shawn Snow is the senior reporter for Marine Corps Times and a Marine Corps veteran.