Analysis 04-03-2020


Military Readiness in the
Era of the Corona Virus

While there has been much talk about the readiness of the medical community and the government in terms of reacting to the Corona pandemic, there hasn’t been much conversation about military readiness, except in terms of how it can assist the government in keeping order or providing medical facilities.

However, in a world where there are dozens of conflicts, military readiness – the ability to fight in a conflict – is important.

That issue came to the fore this week when a letter from the captain of the American aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt to his superiors was leaked to the media.  In it, he posed the problem of balancing the lives of his sailors with the need to maintain military readiness.

A week ago, the Roosevelt only had a handful of Corona virus cases.  Now it has climbed to over one hundred.  The ship has pulled into Guam and offloaded the sick, but the rest of the crew has remained onboard in quarantine.  Unfortunately, the ship, with crowded sleeping quarters and meals served by potentially sick cooks makes the threat of a growing epidemic onboard a real possibility.

Captain Crozier wrote, “Due to a warships inherent limitation of space…the spread of the disease is ongoing and accelerating.”

The Captain then comes to the key factor – one that all militaries are probably considering.  He wrote, “If the Navy focuses on being battle ready, it will lead to losses to the virus…We are not at war.  Sailors do not need to die.  If we do not act now, we are failing to properly take care of our most trusted asset – our sailors.”

The Captain then offers two options.  Take everyone off the ship, except for a 10% of the crew (about 500) to maintain the nuclear reactors and decontaminate the ship.  The other option is to maximize readiness despite the virus.  He wrote, “We go to war with the force we have and fight sick…there will be loses to the virus.”

He concludes, “As war is not imminent, we recommend the peace time end state.”

However, the Secretary of the Navy didn’t agree.  Acting US Navy Secretary Thomas Modly said Wednesday that he did not agree with the captain that all but 10% of the crew could be removed.

This is not the first time Crozier has been at the center of controversy.  He was stationed at Strike Force NATO (Naval Striking and Support Forces NATO) and was the Deputy Director for aircraft targeting for the Libyan operation (Operation Unified Protector).  Several of the bombings hit civilian targets and killed at least 72 Libyans.

The most serious incident according to Human rights Watch occurred in the rural village of Majer, 160 kilometers east of Tripoli. Human Rights Watch found remnants of GBU-12 laser guided bombs.

If the Navy had taken his advice, the Roosevelt would have been out of commission for at least 10 days.  And, even when it went back to sea, it would have probably been undermanned.

That however, is a moot issue as Crozier has been relieved of command. The new skipper will likely be more aggressive in returning the Roosevelt to combat readiness.

This is an unusual letter for the captain of a warship – especially one of the most powerful ships to ever go to sea.  Aircraft carrier captains are usually on the track to become admiral and this letter has probably scuttled his chances to achieve flag rank.  Operational information like this is always secret and by failing to send this to his superiors in a more restricted manner the leaked letter has given American enemies a critical piece of intelligence.

Of course, the leak may have been engineered in order to force the Pentagon to decide.

Of the captain’s letter, Navy Secretary Modly said, “It’s disappointing to hear him say that.  However, at the same time, I know that’s not the truth…This ship has weapons on it. It has munitions on it…It requires a certain number of people on that ship to maintain the safety and security of the ship.”

If the Navy took his advice, the Roosevelt will probably be out of commission for at least 10 days.  And, even when to goes back to sea, it will probably be undermanned.

Of course, this is taking place when tensions in the South China Sea are at a peak and there are indications that Iran may retaliate against American troops or assets in the Middle East.  Can the US afford to take a major part of its military force in the region out of commission?

Probably, sickness on board ships is nothing new and these ships have continued.  In 1977, the American aircraft carrier USS Saratoga faced a hepatitis epidemic when a cook, who made and served ice cream to the ship’s company, got hepatitis.  Unfortunately, there wasn’t enough gamma globulin in Western Europe to inoculate the crew, which led to an emergency effort to gather enough medication in the US to fly to the Mediterranean, where the Saratoga was deployed.  The ship continued its deployment and was even stationed off the coast of Lebanon for a while in case there was a need to evacuate US citizens during the civil war. But Corona virus situation is unprecedented and complicated any remedy.

This isn’t the only situation where the Corona virus has impacted American military readiness.  The US Air Force has expanded its crew in the NORAD command bunker at Cheyenne Mountain in Colorado.  This bunker is designed to withstand a direct hit by a nuclear bomb and still carry out its mission of waging a war.  The crew sent to Cheyenne Mountain is virus free and will remain in isolation until the epidemic threat has passed.

The US Army also cancelled it NATO maneuvers this spring and sent its 20,000 soldiers back to the United States.  US military bases are also trying to isolate its occupants as much as possible in order to limit the spread of the Corona virus.

However, the fact is that hostilities do not end during a pandemic.  The Spanish influenza epidemic took place during World War One and killed more people than the war did.

In fact, a military that does lower its guard during an epidemic is making itself a target for an enemy attack.

That may be one reason that Trump publicized the fact that Iran or its “militia” allies were planning a sneak attack on US troops or assets in Iraq.  He warned, “It this happens, Iran will pay a very heavy price, indeed.

It’s interesting to note that if hostilities between the US and Iran take place, it will be the task of the USS Theodore Roosevelt to reinforce the American forces in the region – unless it is undergoing the decontamination routine suggested by the ship’s captain.  That’s probably one overriding reason for keeping the Roosevelt operationally ready.  If Iran were to start hostilities, including closing the Strait of Hormuz, the US would want to move two aircraft carriers into the Indian Ocean.

However, it isn’t only the Roosevelt that is suffering from the Corona virus.  Although the rate of illness in the US military is less than that in the general population, it has impacted the military.  According to the Military Times, the military is seeing a growth in those infected by 10% – 15% daily.

However, the Pentagon has ordered military units to not publicize their infection rate.  The Pentagon told the Military Times, “Unit-level readiness data for key military forces is information that is classified as a risk to operational security and could jeopardize operational or deterrence.”

At the time this being written, about half a dozen active duty military person has died.  However, military units across the globe have been impacted.  Two aircraft carriers, three training facilities, and the Army’s Fort Bragg have had cases of the virus.  The two carriers are both in the western Pacific.

The fact that Fort Bragg has Corona virus cases is a concern for the Pentagon.  It is the largest military installation in the world with 50,000 active duty personnel.  It is headquarters to the US Army Special Operations Command, the 1st Special Forces Command, and the 82nd Airborne Division.  It is the 82nd, that acts as a rapid reaction force and was the unit that deployed to the Middle East when the American embassy in Baghdad was targeted.

In Afghanistan, US forces have been isolated as much as possible in their bases in order to prevent more infections.  Due to the virus, experts worry that the military may have to stay in Afghanistan longer than planned.

“Protecting the force is our top priority,” Army Col. Sonny Leggett wrote on twitter.  “We continue to execute the ordered drawdown to 8,600.”

“To preserve our currently healthy force, Resolute Support is making the necessary adjustments to temporarily pause personnel movement into theater,” Army General Scott Miller, commander of US operations in Afghanistan, said in a statement.  “In some cases, these measures will necessitate some service members remaining beyond their scheduled departure dates to continue the mission.”

Only essential personnel can enter US bases in Afghanistan and Americans are using more teleconferencing to communicate with their Afghan counterparts.

Although there are Corona virus test kits at US bases in Afghanistan, they can only have them verified by sending them to Germany.  Currently there are about 1,500 soldiers in quarantine – not necessarily because they are exhibiting signs of illness, but because they are new arrivals or are returning from trips.

America isn’t alone in this case.  Militaries around the world are experiencing the same problems, although they are remaining quiet about the threat to their national security.

So, what is the solution?  It’s not as simple as the two options offered by the Captain of the Roosevelt – shut down or risk sailors dying.  Giving the military priority on testing and access to anti-malarial drugs, along with aggressive treatment (medicating those with the virus even before symptoms occur) would allow military units to remain operational during this period, that’s the pentagon hope.

As of this writing, it appears that about half of the crew of the Roosevelt will be moved off the ship (a good number of those will probably be the air wing).  This will still leave the ship capable of carrying out some operations if necessary.  There will also be emergency plans for bringing the rest of the crew onboard within hours if necessary.

To the Pentagon leaders who displayed anger at the Captain of the Roosevelt, they are asserting that what he forgot is that military units must always be prepared for war. He also forgot that being combat ready is as much a guarantee of peace as anything in their view.

As one American veteran who served in the US Navy said recently, “I’m glad the captain of the Roosevelt wasn’t in charge of an American carrier at the Battle of Midway.” *

*The Battle of Midway was an epic clash between the U.S. Navy and the Imperial Japanese Navy that played out six months after the attack on Pearl Harbor. The U.S. Navy’s decisive victory in the air-sea battle (June 3-6, 1942) and its successful defense of the major base located at Midway Island dashed Japan’s hopes of neutralizing the United States as a naval power and effectively turned the tide of World War II in the Pacific.