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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.

During a computer-simulated military exercise, personnel must work indoors, in close quarters. These exercises are not small endeavors. The predecessor to this summer’s exercise, Ulchi Freedom Guardian, was also a computer-simulated exercise. It involved some 50,000 South Korean and 17,500 U.S. service members in 2017. Ulchi Freedom Guardian and other major U.S.–South Korea exercises were scaled back and renamed after a surprise announcement by U.S. President Donald Trump at the 2018 U.S.–North Korea summit in Singapore.

The exact size of military exercises since then is unclear, but they still involve thousands of troops. Without proper safety measures, these indoor spaces, into which many people are crammed for hours at a time, are exactly the kind of environment experts recommend avoiding during the pandemic. The United States and South Korea are taking measures to keep participants safe, but the spread of COVID-19 has proved difficult to control even with strict containment measures, and the risk remains.

 

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