As South Korea’s new COVID-19 cases spike to levels not seen in five months, the United States and South Korea are learning a great deal about the trade-offs and risks associated with maintaining military readiness during the pandemic. Earlier this spring, the two countries canceled a scheduled exercise due to the coronavirus. Now they are staging a similar computer-simulated exercise, scaled down in both size and scope, to maintain readiness.
The threat from North Korea has not abated—a fact North Korea pointedly reminded the international community of when it blew up the inter-Korean liaison office in June. As long as the North Korean threat remains, a strong U.S.–South Korea defense posture to deter aggression and defend the peninsula remains necessary. Pandemic or not, combined military exercises play an important role in making sure that the United States and South Korea are prepared for such scenarios. They allow the allies to rehearse their response, should tension on the peninsula escalate to the point of war.
Yet staging an exercise during a pandemic could have the unintended effect of actually impeding readiness. An armed force that is sick or forced into quarantine is not a ready force.