Top Republican senator demands US military suspend COVID-19 vaccine mandate, arguing it hurts morale and readiness

U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-OK) speaks during a press conference
Sen. Jim Inhofe. Stefani Reynolds/Getty Images
  • Sen. Jim Inhofe wrote to the defense secretary calling for the suspension of the COVID-19 vaccine mandate.
  • The top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee said it is hurting readiness and morale.
  • The Pentagon has said that troops who refuse the vaccine may face disciplinary action.

A top Republican lawmaker wrote to the secretary of defense this week demanding that the military’s “haphazardly implemented and politically motivated” vaccination mandate be immediately suspended to avoid hurting morale and readiness and causing “irrevocable damage to our national security.”

“At a time when our adversaries continue to increase their quantitative and qualitative advantage against our forces, we should seek to ensure that no policy, even unintentionally, hinders military readiness,” Oklahoma Sen. Jim Inhofe, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, wrote to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin.

“Most troublesome is the lack of clarity and consistency among the services as they look to implement the administration’s hasty vaccination mandate,” he added.

COVID-19 vaccines are highly effective at reducing the risk of severe illness and death from COVID-19. As of August, unvaccinated people had a six-fold higher chance of testing positive and an 11-fold greater chance of dying from the disease than vaccinated people.

In late August, Austin issued guidance mandating US service members get vaccinated against COVID-19 prior to deadlines set by the services. The Air Force and Space Force require personnel be vaccinated by November 2. The deadline for the Navy and Marine Corps is November 28. The Army’s deadline is December 15.

Earlier this month, The Washington Post reported that hundreds of thousands of service members were still either unvaccinated or only partially vaccinated against the virus.

On October 12, two days after The Post’s report, Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said that 96.7% of the active-duty force has had at least one dose of the vaccine while 83.7% is fully vaccinated. Numbers for the total force are lower with partially vaccinated at 80% and fully vaccinated at 65%.

Personnel outside of the active-duty force have later deadlines, likely accounting for the lower figures for the total force.

Kirby said that the COVID-19 vaccine mandate is a lawful order and that failure to comply could lead to disciplinary action, including separation from military service. The spokesman explained, however, that “there’s lots of tools available to leaders, short of using the uniform code of military justice, to get these troops to do the right thing for themselves and for their units.”

Inhofe, who has been vaccinated against COVID-19, expressed concerns about possible disciplinary action and how it could affect US military strength.

“Plainly stated, no service member, Department of Defense civilian or contractor supporting the department should be dismissed due to failure to comply with the mandate until the ramifications of mass dismissal are known,” Inhofe wrote in his letter to Austin.

He said that “with an ever shrinking candidate pool, hastily executed policies such as this work to further diminish the ability of the Department to tap into the finite resource of people critical to national security.”

Inhofe suggested that the Biden administration’s vaccine mandates could “do more damage to the nation’s security than any external threat.”

COVID-19 has claimed the lives of at least 67 service members since the start of the pandemic, derailed important training efforts, and even sidelined critical national security assets, including a US Navy aircraft carrier.

In a memo in early August, Austin strongly encouraged service members to get vaccinated, writing that “to defend this nation, we need a healthy and ready force.”

Some Republican lawmakers have pushed back. In his letter to Austin, Inhofe demanded a cost breakdown for discharging and replacing personnel, information on the impact to mission readiness should troops be removed for vaccine refusal, and guidance on the processes for vaccine exemptions.

In a statement Tuesday, Kirby said the Pentagon was aware of Inhofe’s concerns and “will reply to them appropriately.”

Kirby said nearly 85% of active-duty troops and more than 66% of active, guard, and reserve troops are fully vaccinated and that Austin “remains convinced” the effort “is, in fact, one of the surest ways to bolster our readiness for the challenges we face around the world.”

Austin “remains comfortable with the service-appropriate ways in which each military department is pursuing their mandatory vaccination program,” Kirby added. “A vaccinated force is a protected force, better able to deploy and to defend our interests around the world.”