Maintaining the tempo of U.S. military operations during the coronavirus pandemic is irreconcilable with taking adequate measures to protect American military service members from harm. And, in the near term, the risk to American lives of a war with China or Russia is remote, while the risk of major loss of life to the pandemic is not.
That means the Pentagon should be doing everything it can to fight the pandemic at home and in its ranks, rather than continuing to push maximum readiness.
The question is whether that is really happening.
On Tuesday, the San Francisco Chronicle published a shocking letter by the captain of the USS Theodore Roosevelt, a huge nuclear-powered aircraft carrier that had been docked at Guam since March 26. In it, Capt. Brett Crozier told off his superiors for unnecessarily exposing his entire crew to the coronavirus because, according to the Chronicle, after between 100 to 200 sailors had been diagnosed with COVID-19 by March 30, the Navy had ordered the carrier’s 4,000-member crew confined onboard.
The situation onboard Roosevelt was not unlike the conditions which led to an out-of-control outbreak on the cruise ship Diamond Princess — but Crozier noted the cruise liner was actually better suited for quarantine than the carrier, which has shared berthing, mess halls and bathrooms, making proper social distancing impossible, with too little space to properly quarantine infected individuals.
And he reported that attempts to identify and isolate infected sailors pre-emptively through extensive testing proved ineffective anyway: sailors who had tested negative demonstrated infection only three days later.
Crozier stated that he would not hesitate to deploy his carrier to battle, virus or no virus. But, he added, “…we are not at war, and we cannot allow a single Sailor to perish as a result of this pandemic unnecessarily.”
It’s not known why Crozier felt he had to resort to the strongly-worded memo nor how it got leaked to the press, but it apparently worked: the Navy now plans to disembark all but a skeleton crew of a few hundred personnel, as Crozier recommended, though sourcing appropriate accommodations for 3,700 crew is taking some time.
And while Defense Secretary Mark Esper claimed he had not read the letter, Navy Secretary Thomas Modly relieved Crozier of command on April 2, reportedly because he suspected Crozier was responsible for the leak. That the Navy would punish a whistleblower willing to put his career at risk on behalf of his crew’s welfare was as predictable as it was deplorable.
The Theodore Roosevelt’s problems are but the tip of the iceberg for the U.S. military, though: the carrier Ronald Reagan also has reported COVID-19 cases.
The problem is that isolation runs contrary to the proximity with which the military operates. Service members often live in shared quarters; assemble together for training, exercises and field operations; and operate ships, aircraft and ground vehicles in close proximity to one another. Yet isolation is required to keep the coronavirus from spreading.
But the growing medical crisis caused by COVID-19 within the ranks has been worsened by a failure at senior levels to devise and implement consistent policies to combat it across the military — and both are now forcing leaders to make a tough choice between maximizing performance of their traditional missions and minimizing risk to personnel.
It didn’t help that, early on in the pandemic, the military seemingly took its cues from the Trump administration by publicly downplaying the risks COVID-19 posed to troops. Esper stated on Jan. 22 that he wasn’t “tracking” the virus; even as late as March 2, the head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff stated the military’s “young demographic” meant it wasn’t being severely affected — which is in line with a military culture that prizes “toughing out” adversity in order to accomplish the mission.
Between March 7-11, though, the Pentagon raised its Health Protection Condition to the second most severe category and began issuing directives for social isolation, travel bans and increased use of telework. But out of a desire to preserve flexibility, the Pentagon gave its leaders wide latitude to interpret isolation and quarantine measures as they saw fit, which means that some are doing a much better job than others.
For instance, those leaders deployed to South Korea — a country affected by COVID-19 early on — have been highly successful in keeping infection rates down in-country thanks to an extremely strict quarantine regime put into place as early as late January.
But official Pentagon photos show that large numbers of troops continued being ordered to assemble for training and other functions in close proximity elsewhere, well after the Pentagon issued its directive. In one event at Camp Pendleton, for instance, many troops were reportedly brought close together to be informed about the need for social distancing. And leaders of the huge Marine Corps boot camp facility at Parris Island continued training recruits until March 30 — when an outbreak of reportedly less than 50 COVID-19 cases was detected.
Esper has excused the disparities, stating on March 23 “I can’t put out a blanket policy, if you will, that we would then apply to everybody because every situation is different” — but an officer told Defense One that Esper didn’t make isolation measures mandatory “because he didn’t want to put out a policy that conflicted with the administration’s talking points at the time.”
A March 30 count, meanwhile, showed nearly that 633 military personnel and 454 associated civilians (a number that includes Department of Defense workers and contractors, as well as family members of service members) had already contracted COVID-19.
Part of the issue here appears to be that Esper doesn’t want to give the impression of U.S. weakness to potential adversaries — which may explain the new policy, issued on March 30, to stop releasing numbers of infected personnel.
Still, in the last few years, the Pentagon has pushed its troops very hard in an immense effort to raise “lethality” and readiness levels — that is to say, maintaining troops and equipment in a state to deploy for battle on short notice. But trying to continue business as usual in the face of a deadly threat like COVID-19 assuredly will affect readiness down the line. Potential adversaries abroad, also dealing with the pandemic, are far more likely to take notice of a major failure to control the coronavirus within the Pentagon than a downtick in operations.
If the military does become disproportionately afflicted by COVID-19 — or, given rising infection rates in the United States, even proportionally affected — service members and their families could suffer significant losses to illness and potentially become a major vector for the disease. That would not only do a disservice to America’s soldiers, marines, sailors and airmen, but it also would undermine the military’s overarching mission.