The COVID-19 pandemic hasn't put a damper on the production of new soldiers or airmen at basic training facilities.
Basic training throughput for the Air Force is at about 90% of "traditional capacity," Air Force Maj. Gen. Andrea D. Tullos, commander of Second Air Force, said during a press conference at the Pentagon today.
"But we are at 100% production for what the Air Force is asking us to produce for the end of this year," she said. "We had lowered our production to around 60% capacity when COVID began so that we could evaluate the ability of our trainers and the trainees to fight through. But we have since ramped back up."
Initially, the Air Force had wanted about 38,000 new recruits this year, Tullos said. But the service has reduced that to about 35,500. That, she said, is due in large part to better retention.
"We are actually retaining above historic norms," she said. "So we are going to actually hit our end-strength ceiling with our current production rate."
Army Maj. Gen. Lonnie G. Hibbard, commander of the Army Center for Initial Military Training, said the Army's recruitment and retention is similarly situated.
"Right now we're filling, as of this last week, at 90% fill for all three [components] arriving into the training base," he said. He also said that graduation rates for basic trainees is higher than usual — it sits now at about 92%.
Hibbard said the target for producing new soldiers is "in flux," for the same reason it is for the Air Force: retention is high.
"End strength is the combination of recruiting and retention and because of the current environment in the civilian sector, our retention is also through the roof, and headquarters Department of the Army keeps adjusting our targets to keep us within guidelines of our Army end strength," he said.
Keeping airmen and soldiers safe in basic training is a priority for both services, the generals said. Testing recruits for the coronavirus when they arrive at basic training, continuous monitoring and quarantining those who test positive has ensured that training can continue and young airmen and soldiers can stay healthy.
Both the Army and the Air Force are now testing new recruits for COVID-19 upon arrival on station. Both have reported similar numbers regarding the results. About 2% of those new recruits test positive for COVID-19 and, of those who test positive, about 60% are asymptomatic. Those who test positive are moved out of training and into quarantine.
"All soldiers who screen or test positive for exposure or symptoms of the virus are quarantined and given proper medical care, and after recovery, are cleared medically and returned to training," Hibbard said.
Tullos said the Air Force is also quarantining new recruits who test positive for COVID-19. When they are healthy again, they get back to basic training.
"Someone who tests positive when they arrive at basic training is removed from their flight and placed into isolation," she said. "I can tell you that all of our trainees who tested positive upon arrival have recovered and then reentered into the training pipeline."
The Army has basic training facilities at Fort Benning, Georgia; Fort Jackson, South Carolina; Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri; and Fort Sill, Oklahoma. Hibbard said that if any of those facilities reaches capacity as a result of COVID-19, the Army is leveling out the training load by directing trainees to different locations.
The Air Force has historically trained new recruits at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, but as a result of COVID-19, opened a second facility at Keesler AFB, Biloxi, Mississippi.
"The addition of basic military training here at Keesler Air Force Base, has successfully reduced the stress on Lackland's infrastructure, while maintaining quality training and enabling us to sustain our production goals," Tullos said. "We plan to conduct training here at Keesler through the end of fiscal year 2020."