As the repeal of the US military’s Covid-19 vaccine mandate moved closer to becoming law on Thursday, military officials and experts warn it’s a change that could have negative ripple effects on military preparation and the ability of soldiers to deploy around the world.
“It’s not just our side of the equation,” a defense official told CNN of the possible impact of the change. “That’s what our partners and the people we train and work with are asking us to do to get into the country.”
The National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) released on Tuesday includes a provision that would override the Pentagon’s current mandate requiring troops to receive the Covid vaccine. And while Republican lawmakers celebrated its inclusion, the White House said it was a mistake – although President Joe Biden hasn’t said whether he will sign the bill with the provision included.
The House passed the NDAA on Thursday in a 350-80 vote.
Deputy Defense Secretary Sabrina Singh on Wednesday declined to go into specifics about what the Pentagon was preparing for if the warrant was revoked, instead pointing out that Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin believes that the mandate is important to the health of the force.
“What’s important for force readiness is getting the vaccine,” Singh said. “So yes, it would have an impact on the readiness of the force – you are more likely to catch Covid-19.”
It’s not just the United States. US troops often have additional vaccine requirements depending on the region of the world in which they are deployed or on rotation. Under current Pentagon policy, service members who have not received the vaccine are considered non-deployable, Singh said Wednesday.
Indeed, retired General Robert Abrams, who previously commanded US troops in South Korea, told CNN that the repeal of the vaccine “will make our job more difficult”, referring to the duties of commanders abroad. . The Covid-19 vaccine is mandatory to enter South Korea and Japan – countries that host thousands of US service members.
Repealing the vaccination mandate “will put U.S. forces in an awkward position,” Abrams said, because “the host nation expects us to follow their regulations (and SOFA [status of forces agreement] requires it).
Republicans have long opposed the Covid vaccine requirement — which is one of more than 15 vaccines required, depending on where a service member is deployed.
An August 2021 policy signed by Austin required all service members to receive the vaccine; the services set their own deadlines for fully vaccinating their troops.
Now, about a year later, the vast majority of American troops are: 97% of active duty soldiers are fully immunized, as are 99% of active duty Airmen, 96% of active duty Marines and 98% active duty sailors.
But as the military faces the biggest recruiting crisis in decades, critics of the mandate say it pushes back military volunteers at a time when the military needs them most and stands in the way of recruits who want join but do not want to get the vaccine.
Marine Corps Commandant General David Berger said over the weekend that the mandate was having an impact on recruiting, particularly “in some parts of the country there are still myths and misconceptions about the ‘story behind it’. Capt. Ryan Bruce, a Marine Corps spokesperson, later told CNN Berger was referring to “anecdotal conversations” he had with recruiters, not specific data showing an impact of the warrant. on recruitment.
Officials and experts, however, have raised further concerns about the impact the repeal of the mandate could have on troops already in uniform. Rachel VanLandingham, a retired Air Force judge advocate and Southwestern Law School law professor, told CNN there could be “ripple effects” for units if some service members don’t. couldn’t deploy because of the vaccine.
This is especially notable for small units, such as those found in the special ops community. While conventional forces may be able to ensure they have the manpower they need for a deployment or rotation, smaller units could face more difficulty if the few people they have cannot deploy due to a need for a vaccine.
“If a unit can’t leave, then the unit they’re replacing, they can’t go home on leave… It’s not just one unit and one person,” VanLandingham said. “One person’s inability to report for duty in a military unit affects that entire unit, and that unit depends on other units. It’s really a team dynamic. »
Abrams also pointed out that vaccinations “help prevent serious illness” and that Korean American forces “do not have the medical capacity to handle large numbers of very sick infected people.” Instead, US personnel should be sent to Korean facilities, he said, which could pose problems if there is a lack of availability or if the facility is not approved by TRICARE, the supplier. US Army health care.
Experts have also raised questions about the precedent he would set to overturn a lawful military order after so many refused to follow him.
“If I’m a commander, what do I have to deal with this person who failed to obey a lawful order?” said Kate Kuzminski, director of the military, veterans and society program at the Center for New American Security.
“I think there are bigger challenges in the social context and the culture of the military if pushing back a legal order actually changes the nature of the legal order,” she added. “You might see people refusing to do other things in the future that we really need them to do.”
Among the debated points of the repeal of the vaccine is the question of what will happen to the approximately 8,000 servicemen who have already been separated and forced out of the army because they refused to be vaccinated. . While some believe that because they refused a legal order they will remain separated, some lawmakers are pushing for them to be reinstated.
A November 30 letter sent to Republican leaders and signed by 13 Republican senators calls not only for the term to be revoked, but for service members who were separated to be reinstated “in back pay.” Pentagon leaders would discuss this possibility.