US military expected to announce halt to troop and family relocation moves in areas impacted by coronavirus

For now, the directive would only apply to troops in Italy and South Korea

A US flag is pictured on a soldier's uniform during an artillery live fire event by the US Army Europe's 41st Field Artillery Brigade at the military training area in Grafenwoehr, southern Germany, on March 4, 2020. - The 41st Field Artillery Brigade plans, prepares, executes and assesses operations to provide US Army Europe with long-range precision strike capabilities. (Photo by Christof STACHE / AFP) (Photo by CHRISTOF STACHE/AFP via Getty Images)
A US flag is pictured on a soldier's uniform during an artillery live fire event by the US Army Europe's 41st Field Artillery Brigade at the military training area in Grafenwoehr, southern Germany, on March 4, 2020. - The 41st Field Artillery Brigade plans, prepares, executes and assesses operations to provide US Army Europe with long-range precision strike capabilities. (Photo by Christof STACHE / AFP) (Photo by CHRISTOF STACHE/AFP via Getty Images) (Getty Images)

The US military is expected to announce a 60-day pause on all previously scheduled moves for troops and their families in areas significantly impacted by the coronavirus pandemic, according to a defense official with direct knowledge of the discussions.

The Pentagon is also continuing to review whether it can continue with planned military exercises around the world, the source said. That announcement comes as US military leaders announced a joint exercise in Africa would be scaled back to protect forces from potential coronavirus exposure.

Top Pentagon leadership, including Defense Secretary Mark Esper, have been briefed on a potential halt on relocations, the source said. The directive would impact so-called 'Permanent Change of Station' moves that routinely occur for US troops and their families when they move to another part of the world on orders from the US military.

For now, the directive would only apply to troops in Italy and South Korea, both of which have been hit hard by the virus. South Korea has more than 7,500 infected people and a death toll of 54, according to the World Health Organization, while Italy has over 10,000 infected people and 631 dead to date.

Commanders in Italy and Korea are already working with families who may have already shipped household goods to another post, to ensure they continue to have a place to live.

"These particular effects are very modest, it's what happens next," said Mark Cancian, a retired Marine colonel who is now a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, of the potential move. "This is the leading edge of what could be much broader adaptations the department is going to have to make and those would have an impact."

"Troops scheduled to move to Europe in general could be held back. If that happens the effects will be much more significant," said Cancian, who also flagged the Pentagon discussions about pausing military exercises around the world.

"If they scale back all overseas exercises that's a much bigger deal," Cancian said. "If all the rotations into Europe were stopped, if all exercises were stopped, if Naval deployments were stopped. That would have a major effect on day to day readiness and global presence."

The Army has already paused military moves in northern Italy and South Korea without waiting for Esper to make a defense department-wide decision.

Pentagon officials say they are prepared to expand the order globally if the situation escalates in other areas.

If they do so, it could affect tens of thousands of troops and family members. The Pentagon's initial step would be to end transfers of anybody in an area where there has been a community wide outbreak, the source said.

For now, the relocation ban on troops in Italy and South Korea could also impact troops in other areas of Europe and in the Pacific, the official said.

The Pentagon is using the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention definition of a Level Three area as a guidepost for its planning. Under that designation, all non-essential travel is banned and travelers are told stay home for 14 days after returning to the US.

Also Tuesday, US military leaders announced that they would be scaling back the size and scope of the African Lion military exercise with Morocco, Tunisia and Senegal "to minimize exposure of US and partner nation service members to the novel coronavirus."

"The safety and protection of all of our forces -- US and partner nation -- is a priority," Gen. Stephen J. Townsend, commander of US Africa Command, said in a statement. "Modifying the exercise still improves readiness while minimizing risk to protect both US and partner forces."

Scheduled to start March 23, the exercise will now include only portions that do not require troops to lodge together in close quarters.