An aircraft carrier sits dockside and her over 5,000 men and women wait in quarantine as the coronavirus spreads at an accelerating rate on board. The sidelining of the carrier has become one of the bigger examples of the Pentagon’s struggle to deal with the ongoing global pandemic.
The USS Theodore Roosevelt became the first Navy vessel to report cases of the coronavirus among its sailors. The carrier first reported cases of the coronavirus after making a port call in Vietnam, which had about 16 known cases at the time, according to Pentagon officials.
According to Defense Secretary Mark Esper, key decisions about how to address the outbreak have been left to local commanders. However, as the disease continues to spread among the ranks, the Pentagon will soon have to figure out how it can stay at the ready to confront rivals such as North Korea and Iran and how it can display unflagging resolve to adversaries even as the outbreak decimates its ranks.
“The military is torn between its need to maintain operations, which cannot be done with ‘social distancing,’ and the need to restrict interactions to inhibit infections,” said Mark Cancian, a retired Marine Corps colonel who’s now a military analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “It has still not figured out how to strike that balance.”
According to the Pentagon, there have been 309 confirmed cases of the coronavirus among active military personnel as of Friday — a small fraction of the approximately 1.3 million troops it has on active duty. However, the case of the USS Roosevelt shows just how even a small number can sideline one of its most important assets.
Initially, only three sailors onboard the Roosevelt had tested positive for the virus. After these sailors were airlifted off the ship, Acting Secretary of the Navy Thomas Modly affirmed that the ship would continue sailing. “This is an example of our ability to keep our ships deployed at sea, underway even with active COVID-19 cases,” Modly stated March 24. Two days later, however, the ship was sidelined at port as the Navy struggled to contain the outbreak.
Part of the issue is how difficult it is to maintain social distancing on the carrier thanks to the tight quarters on board. To save space, most Navy ships practice “hot-racking” where two or more sailors use the same bunk, sleeping in different shifts.
In response to this, Capt. Brent Crozier commander of the ship has since requested that his crew be quarantined ashore instead.
“A clean ship is required. Every sailor onboard must be guaranteed virus-free and the ship environment must be disinfected,” wrote Crozier. “One infected sailor introduced to the ship will spread the virus.”
As part of his letter, Crozier presented two possible scenarios. One of these had the sailors remaining on the ship and, should war ever break out, have to fight while sick. “There will be losses to the virus,” explained Crozier about this scenario.
Crozier’s second scenario, on the other hand, would have the ship evacuated and the crew quarantined based on guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), only retaining a skeleton crew to keep the ship’s reactor running. “Off ship lodging in compliance with CDC and [Navy] guidance is required for over 4,000 sailors to achieve a clean ship and crew,” Crozier stated.
For his part, Modly has confirmed that he “didn’t disagree” with Crozier about getting the sailors into quarantine. Modly also admitted that the military’s ability to test was limited, mentioning that it would take up to three weeks to check everyone aboard the ship. However, he disputed the idea that the ship would be out of action if major hostilities broke out.
“If there was a reason for her to go into action she would just go,” Modly said. “She’s close enough to some trouble spots that she could mobilize and go quickly.”
The Roosevelt is one of two carriers in the Pacific, close to potential flashpoints in East Asia. The other carrier, the USS Ronald Reagan, is currently docked at the Navy base in Yokosuka, Japan, which is on lockdown after three servicemen, including one from the carrier, tested positive for the disease.
The outbreak on the Roosevelt is just one example of missteps in the Pentagon’s handling of the coronavirus. For one, the Army waited until Thursday to raise its health protection status to “D.” This is the highest level where critical rapid-response forces that would be deployed in a national security crisis would be isolated to keep them ready to fight. Before this, the Army briefly stopped some training exercises, only to restart them a day later. (Related: Trump order gives Pentagon authority to call up one million reserve and retired military personnel to fight coronavirus as disease BLASTS through New York City and beyond.)
Meanwhile, it took until March 13 for the Pentagon to establish a coordination task force to work closely with the Office of the Secretary of Defense, Joint Staff, the military services and other agencies to develop policy documents and provide recommendations to senior leadership.
Pentagon officials have warned that America’s adversaries will seek to take advantage of any weakness in the military’s strength, real or perceived. Already, Iranian proxies have staged attacks on bases in Iraq where U.S. troops are stationed; meanwhile, North Korea has launched short-range ballistic missiles in defiance of international sanctions. The Pentagon has stated that such threats are why how some things won’t change unless the outbreak in the military gets worse.
In response to why they’ve continued with large-scale training exercises, Marine Corps commandant General David Berger stated: “The Marine Corps is unique, We are mandated by law to be the nation’s most ready force, and that’s what I think you expect us to be.”
While epidemiologists have warned against uncoordinated responses to the pandemic, the Pentagon will be sticking with its position that local commanders are best-suited to make the right decisions.
“I trust upon our commanders and our senior enlisted personnel to do the right thing particular to your unit, to your situation, to your mission,” affirmed Esper during a virtual town hall on Tuesday. “It’s up to the commanders and senior NCOs to make the right calls relevant to their situation to ensure that we protect our people while at the same time maintaining mission readiness.”