The plight of the USS Roosevelt highlights a coming challenge for the US military, as our battle-readiness and forward presence contend with the reality of the pandemic.
The USS Roosevelt is pleading with top brass to relieve its sick sailors and prevent the same fate for those onboard. The captain of the carrier, Cpt. Brett Cozier, confirms that there are over 100 positive cases onboard.
In a candid, if not blunt, letter to his superiors, he criticized their prescriptions for handling the outbreak onboard, and insisted that all men be allowed to de-board for isolation and treatment. The Navy has so far blocked the de-boarding of the ship, which is currently sidelined in Guam.
The challenge, as explained by Navy leadership, is twofold.
For one, the Navy has nowhere for the sick sailors to go. Currently, there is no designated quarantine space on the island, although the prospect of converting a hotel or other residential building is being explored. The other challenge is less obvious but perhaps more vexing.
The captain wants to offload virtually the entire crew in order to prevent the spread of infection on the naturally confined ship, given that many sailors could currently be asymptomatic carries. This would allow the whole ship to be disinfected.
However, with a nuclear power source, airplanes, and the potential for fires, the ship would be a vulnerable target and potential safety hazard if left totally unmanned.
Military Preparedness a Growing Concern
While the USS Roosevelt is the most high-profile coronavirus challenge facing the military, it is emblematic of a larger issue. Preparedness vs. prevention, mobility vs. minimizing infection; it is very difficult to maintain a the most elite fighting force in the world and practice social distancing at the same time.
The nature of the military makes it both vulnerable and resilient to outbreaks of disease. Close quarters naturally lead to outbreaks, but the strict, procedural culture of the military makes it easier to execute measures to prevent contagion.
The US military also has ample resources to combat outbreaks with aggressive treatment and anticipatory measures.
However, the scale of the COVID-19 pandemic has made it inevitable that the US military would be affected. In addition to the USS Roosevelt, nearly a thousand cases have been confirmed within its ranks. The Marine Corps has suspended the arrival of new recruits to Basic Training at Parris Island as some positive cases popped up at the facility. Both the US Army and Navy are suspending or heavily altering their fitness tests in response to avoid accelerated spread of the virus.
All these issues translate, for the time being, to at least a perceived impact on the US military’s combat readiness. Adversaries like China and Russia, though dealing with similar challenges at home, are no doubt aware of the potential for the virus to deal a significant, if temporary blow to the US military’s ability to conduct its normal operations.
The US military’s unique role in the world requires a forward presence across the globe, which leaves the military with a difficult choice: limit personnel movement, which complicates the fulfillment of our various commitments abroad, or continue to operate normally and risk higher rates of infection.
The plight of the USS Roosevelt is a high-profile illustration of this conundrum, but the greater challenge transcends any single boat, battalion or branch.