The political fallout aside, the breakout of the pandemic on board the Theodore Roosevelt has led to the ship being docked in Guam while the Navy deals with the rapidly spreading pandemic amongst its crew.
By Commodore Anil Jai Singh, ( Retd)
The recent incident of the COVID-19 outbreak on the USS Theodore Roosevelt, the 100,000 tonne US aircraft carrier which led to the removal of its Commanding officer and its repercussions which led to the subsequent resignation of the Acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly brought to the fore two glaring revelations – firstly, it showed how political grandstanding can be detrimental to national security considerations and secondly, in an operational context, the serious implications that the COVID-19 pandemic can have on navies and as a consequence, on maritime security.
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The political fallout aside, the breakout of the pandemic on board the Theodore Roosevelt has led to the ship being docked in Guam while the Navy deals with the rapidly spreading pandemic amongst its crew. It is suspected that three crew members contracted the infection while the ship was visiting Danang in Vietnam from 4th to 9th March where the crew went ashore. It was on 24 March that three sailors were evacuated by which time the cases had started multiplying. By 27th March when the ship berthed in Guam, many more crew members had tested positive.
Within a week thereafter, more than 600 of the 5000 crew members have been tested positive and one fatality has also occurred. The Roosevelt is not the only ship affected by the pandemic. Unconfirmed media reports indicate some other US Naval ships may also have coronavirus cases on board. Hopefully, the lessons learnt from the poor handling of the Roosevelt case may prevent the virus from spreading widely on board other ships and submarines all over the world. One of the measures being taken by navies is to keep the ships at sea. This may be possible for large blue water navies with adequate sustenance capability and logistic support but that too cannot be indefinite because it affects other aspects like crew morale, fatigue and lowered operational efficiency. Smaller navies will be even more challenged in preventing the ingress of the Coronavirus into their midst.
The US Navy is not the only one. There were reports in the media that a Russian nuclear submarine also had a COVID positive case on board. More recently, the FS Charles de Gaulle, the French Navy’s only aircraft carrier which was operating in the North Atlantic has also been recalled to Toulon and its crew evacuated. At last count, more than 700 of the almost 1700 crew members have been tested positive.
Warships and submarines are not designed for space. They are packed to the gills with machinery, weapons and systems. Living spaces are cramped and the crew has to work in confined spaces for days on end which could extend to months and where ‘social ‘distancing’ is well-nigh impossible. it is therefore not surprising that an infection like the coronavirus can spread rapidly on board. The fact that this manifests itself after a few days means that it could be spreading amongst an unsuspecting crew till positive symptoms are detected by which time many more would be infected. Hence the priority for all navies presently would be to prevent any outbreak of the pandemic amongst their personnel both afloat and ashore.
The Indian Navy, which at any given time has over a dozen warships forward-deployed in various parts of the Indo-Pacific has instituted various measures to prevent the occurrence of COVID on board. It has restricted these ships from entering friendly foreign ports for replenishment which is now being done at sea. Warships, such as destroyers, frigates and corvettes, which form the cutting edge of a navy’s forward deployment capability require to be refuelled every three to four days at sea. Since it is obviously not possible to assign an underway replenishment ship to accompany each ship operating independently hundreds of miles away from another, the navy’s deployment strategy may need to be realigned with this new reality. This will also be true of all other navies with perhaps a few exceptions.
One of these exceptions could be the PLA Navy. Having let loose this virus ion an unsuspecting world by concealing its existence, China has already started flexing its muscle in the South China Sea. In its typical fashion, China has sensed a vulnerability in the region which it is seeking to exploit to its best advantage and is testing the counter-response capability. A few days ago it sank a Vietnamese fishing boat and has in the last few days started adopting an aggressive posture against Taiwan. It may be recalled that it was in the Taiwan Straits in 1995-96 that the US aircraft carrier presence had effectively blunted China’s aggressive moves against Taiwan. Smarting from that incident, China soon developed its Anti Access Area Denial (A2/AD) strategy to prevent such recurrence and also developed the DF-21 missile calling it the ‘Carrier Killer’ missile. Since then the PLA Navy has come a long way and is now far more powerful, quantitatively and qualitatively. In sheer numbers, it is the largest navy in the world though it may lack the technological capabilities of its bete-noire, the US Navy. However, it now has the confidence to adopt an aggressive posture in the Western Pacific. With the Roosevelt tied up alongside in Guam and battling the coronavirus, the Chinese may adopt an even bolder stance.
The effects of this pandemic will continue to impact the regional and global maritime security calculus not only in the immediate future but for some years to come. As economies flounder under its onslaught, the socio-economic challenges faced by nations will take precedence and defence budgets may see a reduction as the world braces to effect an economic recovery. New military acquisitions and modernisation programmes may have to be re-prioritised which may affect certain capabilities, the loss of which could have long term effects. There may be a reduction in the deployment footprint due to logistic constraints which could also impact operational turn-around times of ships and submarines. Multinational and bilateral exercises which enhance interoperability and cooperative engagement may have to be truncated which could impact response capability against transnational threats and threats to the maintenance of good order at sea. The effect on a navy’s support functions ashore is also a matter of concern. Curtailment of training programmes, delays in induction of personnel, movement of personnel on postings and for various duties are other areas of concern. Assisting the state in combating the pandemic will lead to a diversion of resources, material and human, meant otherwise for the front line. The impact of this virus is, therefore, going to affect the operational preparedness in many direct and indirect ways for which countries will have to reorient their response strategies for their other roles and missions.
Maritime security includes much more than just the role of navies. It includes safe passage of trade and commerce, the security of energy flows, food security, the economic effects on the maritime industry, sustainable ocean development, effect on the livelihood of coastal communities and many more such issues, each of which is being affected by the current crisis. It will take a visionary and well-coordinated all-of-government approach to address these comprehensively and optimally. The extent to which nations can measure up to this task will determine their credibility and strategic posture.
There is a view that the post-COVID world order could look quite different as the quality of the response by various countries thus far has cruelly laid bare their vulnerabilities and governance deficits. Economically stressed countries may become vulnerable to external pressures. To meet their immediate concerns, they may be tempted to seek financial largesse from more powerful countries which could in the longer term lead to sovereignty issues.
India, as the pre-eminent maritime power in the Indian Ocean and a net security provider in the region has to put in place an inclusive and comprehensive economic capacity building multi-sectoral initiative in its strategic neighbourhood and adequate security capacity and capability to ward off predatory interests which may try to exploit regional vulnerabilities.
(The author is Vice President Indian Maritime Foundation. Views expressed are personal.)