Prepare for War or Fight Coronavirus? U.S. Military Battles Competing Instincts

WASHINGTON — One of the hallmarks of the United States military is its ability to project power around the world, often under the banner of slogans intended to strike fear in its adversaries. “Ready to fight tonight” for U.S. troops in South Korea; “America’s 911” for the Marine Corps expeditionary units at sea; the list goes on.

But now the foe is a novel coronavirus, and it has struck deep. More than 1,200 military personnel and their family members are affected, disabling a talisman of American military might — a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier — and leaving the Defense Department virtually at war with itself over two competing instincts: protecting troops from the virus and continuing its decades-old mission of patrolling the globe and engaging in combat, if ordered to do so.

The Navy is thus far refusing to completely evacuate an aircraft carrier where 93 service members have been confirmed to be infected with the coronavirus. Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper has put himself on the side of business as usual in maintaining readiness while also saying that force protection is a top priority. President Trump, for his part, threatened a familiar foe, tweeting on Wednesday that Iran would “pay a very heavy price” if its proxies attacked American troops or assets in Iraq. Other Defense Department officials continued to insist that the aircraft carrier, the Theodore Roosevelt, remain ready to carry out its missions.

The commander of the Roosevelt, Capt. Brett E. Crozier, pointed out in a strongly worded letter that “we are not at war.” That statement raised questions from the Pacific to the Pentagon of what was so important about the aircraft carrier’s presence off the coast of Guam that the Defense Department could not evacuate the ship and do a deep cleaning, as suggested by Captain Crozier.

“Militaries are made to move, but that runs counter to the imperative for everyone to stay in place,” said Derek Chollet, a former assistant secretary of defense. “Just as the Covid-19 threat becomes a priority, it does not mean that other threats disappear or enemies stand down.”

U.S. warships typically spend months at sea monitoring the activities of adversaries. The ships assigned to the Pacific Fleet patrol the South China Sea, the East China Sea and areas in between, sometimes undertaking so-called freedom of navigation operations that bring them close to disputed islands in the area. The goal of these voyages is to drive home to China that the United States does not recognize Beijing’s claims of ownership.

American warships in the region are also keeping an eye on the nuclear and missile threat from North Korea. And they sit ready to deploy to the Arabian Sea and the Persian Gulf if tensions — with, say, Iran — flare up.

But for the moment, the virus has proved far more damaging than any recent encounters with traditional adversaries and exposed a vulnerability of a force often referred to as the world’s policeman. For all the focus on the battles in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen and the power conflict with China and Russia, none has come close to crippling an American aircraft carrier in days.

“Without healthy sailors there is no mission readiness, so the health of the crew has to come first,” said James G. Stavridis, a retired admiral and former NATO commander. But, he added, the Navy cannot simply bring the carrier to port and send everyone off the ship: “It is full of weapons, billions of dollars of equipment, fire hazards and nuclear reactors.”

As of Wednesday, about 1,000 of the approximately 4,800 crew members had been taken off the Roosevelt, a number that was expected to more than double in the coming days.

Adm. Michael M. Gilday, the chief of naval operations, said on Wednesday that the Navy would have to maintain a core crew of about 1,000 to monitor the nuclear reactors, guard the warplanes and weapons and keep the ship running.

But that could take the carrier out of action for weeks or even months.

“It won’t be resolved in the next couple of days,” Thomas B. Modly, the acting Navy secretary, told reporters on Wednesday alongside Admiral Gilday. “It will take some time.”

One question now is whether the Navy will surge more ships to the Pacific to make up for the carrier hunkering down in port off Guam.

The Roosevelt is one of the Navy’s 11 aircraft carriers. But only a third of the enormous ships and their air wings is deployed at any given time; one third is preparing for sea tours that last six to eight months, and the last third is undergoing maintenance after completing deployments.

There are currently four carriers deployed. The Eisenhower and the Truman are in the Persian Gulf, a sign of American resolve amid increasing tensions with Iran and its Shiite proxies in Iraq, which have carried out deadly rocket attacks against American troops in Iraq.

Joining the Roosevelt in the western Pacific is the Ronald Reagan, which is based out of Yokosuka, Japan.

For the military, the core issue is that as the virus spreads, it becomes increasingly difficult to carry on with training and missions. At U.S. military outposts all over the world, commanders are stopping training alongside local forces and instituting other measures to seal off their troops from the threat. Even so, the moves are ultimately half measures as the military, especially those who are deployed, live in shared spaces.

That problem is only amplified in the Navy. Each ship — with confined berthing areas, mess halls, shared bathrooms and nowhere to go — is a cramped cell where social distancing is nearly impossible.

“Once the virus is on a ship like that, it’s going to spread,” Mr. Modly said. He added that of the approximately 90 ships that were currently deployed, the Roosevelt was the only one currently contending with the virus. Discussions were underway about whether more adjustments to operations might be needed in the future, he said.

Current and former Navy officials offered conflicting assessments of how their leadership had handled the unfolding crisis aboard the Roosevelt. Some noted that the carrier promptly pulled into port to enable a wider testing program and a safer mechanism to transfer infected sailors off the ship.

“The system of risk assessment inherent in military operations is functioning as designed,” said Adm. Scott H. Swift, a former Pacific Fleet commander. “The challenges we all face is the scope and scale of the impact of the virus.”

But others warned that the response was falling short, and that it threatened the combat readiness of many Navy warships.

“Think Diamond Princess by a factor of 10,” said Sean O’Keefe, a former secretary of the Navy, referring to the commercial cruise liner on which hundreds of passengers were stricken. “There’s no way to effectively segregate large numbers of crew members before the virus moves through the entire ship. It doesn’t take an active imagination to realize the U.S. Navy’s deployed fleet could be immobilized in six weeks if the naval service can’t come up with an effective containment strategy.”

Other commanders expressed fears that adversaries could see the stricken carrier as an opportunity to harm the United States or American interests at a time when the Pentagon and the Trump administration are consumed with fighting the coronavirus.

“My concern is the signal the Chinese, the North Koreans or the Russians pick up from this, and see it as an opportunity for misadventure,” said Vice Adm. William Douglas Crowder, a retired commander of the Seventh Fleet and a former deputy chief of naval operations. “They miscalculate our ability to respond.”

Other branches of the military are having issues as well. “It’s having an impact on readiness,” Gen. David L. Goldfein, the Air Force chief of staff, acknowledged in a conference call with reporters on Wednesday.

Air Force warplanes are flying fewer missions and conducting less training, operating with split shifts and split crews to limit the exposure of personnel to the virus. The Air Force’s nuclear mission was not affected, said Brig. Gen. Edward W. Thomas Jr., the service’s top spokesman. Missile crews were split up, isolated and protected, he said, and each one was working.

“If any adversary believed that our defenses were weakened,” General Thomas said, “it would be a serious miscalculation.”

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