U.S. Navy’s Coronavirus Infection: National Security On The Line

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The United States Navy has a rich tradition and history that is revered by the American people.  Quotes from naval leaders – “I have only just begun to fight” (John Paul Jones), “I have met the enemy and he is ours” (Oliver Hazard Perry), “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead” (David Farragut), and “You may fire when ready, Gridley” (George Dewey) – reverberate repeatedly in the American lexicon and exemplify the courage of American naval officers and sailors.  Everyone recalls examples of their courage in battle – plywood PT Boats challenging the steel and firepower of Japanese cruisers and destroyers to help Marines hold Guadalcanal; destroyers and escort carriers valiantly charging Japanese battleships to save soldiers still aboard defenseless transports at Leyte Gulf; and torpedo bomber cruisers gallantly pressing home their attacks at Midway, knowing they faced certain death while hoping their comrades in the dive bombers would have a free run at the Japanese carriers. And they did.

Against this backdrop of tradition and sacrifice, the events that unfolded on the U.S.S. Theodore Roosevelt, a ship named after the American most responsible for the modern United States Navy and therefore the spiritual flagship of the fleet, are passing strange.  The ship’s captain, Brett Crozier, transmitted an unclassified memo via abnormal formatting and unclassified communications channels reporting the appearance of COVID-19 among his sailors after a port call in Vietnam.  The memo stated that the ship could not effectively quarantine the infected sailors, noted that some crew would have to remain aboard, and requested assistance.  It neither specified the assistance required nor actions Captain Crozier had taken to mitigate the risk associated with the infection.  When the memo became public, the Acting Secretary of the Navy relieved Crozier of his command.  Reportedly, the Task Force commander, a Rear Admiral, was unaware of the memo.

The publication of the memo revealed to the world, and to America’s competitors, including China – the country responsible for the release and global spread of SARS-COV-2 – that an American carrier battle group, a critical element of U.S. defense forces in the Pacific, might be unable to fight.  The Roosevelt’s potentially premature withdrawal from the Western Pacific to the ship’s homeport not only substantially weakens our national security posture in Asia, but it would also stretch us thinner around the globe because another of the Navy’s 11 carriers must be diverted from current assignment to cover the Theodore Roosevelt’s mission.  That this took place during a national emergency declared by the President and characterized as a war on an invisible enemy while China has been waging an unrelenting and escalating information and cyber campaign against the United States, escalates the matter substantially.  

The protection of operational readiness conditions, especially of a warship that is a key part of America’s nuclear deterrent, is a vital national security matter.  Its compromise to a potential enemy provides an advantage that could lead to substantial loss of life.  In addition, Captain Crozier made a port call in Vietnam and authorized his crew shore leave, knowing that a global pandemic that originated in China, Vietnam’s neighbor, was raging around the world, and his response was panic-stricken.  Under the circumstances, the Navy had no choice but to remove Captain Crozier from command. 

This is not unusual.  Navy ship captains have made serious mistakes before and been removed from command.  The most recent incidents involved collisions between U.S. Navy warships and commercial vessels.  

The U.S.S. Theodore Roosevelt is a warship equipped to meet, survive, and defeat every possible threat imaginable today, including bio-WMD.  One aspect of a carrier’s survivability is a medical department designed to support up to 10,000 sailors assigned to the carrier battle group, and treat hundreds of casualties.  While theoretically, the ship has the medical personnel and space to care for acute COVID-19 cases, the novel character of the disease means that the Navy needs to respond rapidly to protect the lives of the Roosevelt’s crew.  

While the ship is in port at Guam, the Navy is testing the crew (so far 2000 have been tested, with 230 reported positive) and sanitizing the ship.  Undoubtedly, every member of the crew will be tested.  The Navy has stated its commitment to protecting the life of every crew member.  Undoubtedly, the Navy will make additional pharmaceutical and medical personnel resources available to assure the crew’s safety.  

Captain Crozier’s memo publication has placed the Navy in a position of reacting to public opinion, rather than making decisions on the disposition of warship and crew based on military and national security priorities.   Under the public eye, it may be impossible to leave the USS Theodore Roosevelt on station and use augmented resources to fight through the infection, although replacement may be difficult as now crewmembers on four U.S. carriers have tested positive for the virus.  In the Atlantic, a French carrier has been turned home to port with suspected COVID-19 cases aboard.  COVID-19 has demonstrated the viability of bio-WMD as an effective strategic and now tactical weapon in asymmetric warfare.  It is highly likely that future conflicts may open with a covert bio-WMD attack followed by more conventional assaults.  To defeat that future attack, our Navy may have to fight with infected crews.  Leaving the Theodore Roosevelt on station would give the Navy the opportunity to test operational effectiveness under biological warfare duress and send a powerful message to China about the operational resilience of the United States Navy.  It would be an order consistent with the Navy’s history and tradition, as well as one the ship’s namesake would undoubtedly approve.

This article was co-authored with AND Magazine’s Senior Editor, Sam Faddis, a retired CIA Station Chief, Operations Officer, and former Chief of CIA’s Counterterrorism Center’s WMD Department. He is also a former U.S. Army JAG and Armor officer.

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