With Coronavirus 'Sinking' A Carrier, Navy Needs To Get Serious About Disease Threats Again
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The dramatic presidential send-off of the hospital ship USNS Comfort (T-AH-19) to a virus-stricken New York and the recently announced quarantine of the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71) for COVID-19 offers the Navy an undeniable justification to reinsert disease control and public health into modern naval warfighting strategy.
Disease control and public health need to return to the forefront of military thinking. Thanks to decades of relative safety due to antibiotics, vaccines and other effective medicines, the Navy has long downplayed and dismissed the threat of communicable diseases. And while no disease can physically sink a Navy ship, even a simple flu outbreak can temporarily reduce the military effectiveness of any vessel.
And that reduced effectiveness could easily cause the loss of a mission—or even lose the ship.
With the emergence of new and virulent contagious diseases as well as the re-emergence of tuberculosis and other “old-school” contagious diseases, protocols to protect Navy ships and crews from disease merit revision. It is particularly important today — the relatively small and specialized crews that are currently in vogue will be far more vulnerable to disease-induced degradation than the large-crewed, highly-redundant platforms of yesterday.
It is time to take disease seriously again.
The outbreak aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71) demonstrates that a ship’s crew are easy targets for contagious diseases. Aboard the aircraft carrier, the first three cases led, within days, to dozens of ill sailors, and a full quarantine of the vessel. Over the next few days, testing will reveal many more infected sailors.
The USS Theodore Roosevelt is no stranger to disease outbreaks. In December 2002, more than 10% of the carrier’s crew was stricken with a viral outbreak during a training cruise.
Other carriers have suffered outbreaks of various sorts—often after visiting shore. But the Navy, while quick to use aircraft carriers to respond to conventional warfare threats, is slow to shift carrier operations when the crew is confronted by major disease hazards. When SARS was spreading across Asia in 2003, the USS Carl Vinson (CVN-70) pulled into Pusan and held an ill-advised party for Korean dignitaries. And later, as Singapore was identified as a potential area of SARS transmission, several key U.S. ships continued to transit through the port.
This distressing disconnect between naval operations and biomedical intelligence (and basic epidemiological common sense) was on full display when the USS Theodore Roosevelt pulled into Vietnam in mid March. The port call in Da Nang, as the second time a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier had visited since the end of the Vietnam War, was well received, but it probably could have been postponed.
Deniers can cling to the idea that disease can’t sink a ship. In military language, the USS Theodore Roosevelt remains operationally capable, which means that the ship can do the things aircraft carriers do—fly planes while the ship plying the sea lanes. But, in strategic terms, disease has effectively sidelined, or “sunk”, the multi-billion dollar aircraft carrier.
With the USS Theodore Roosevelt, infection forced the ship to divert from planned operations for testing and decontamination (or, in the more polite vernacular of the day, a “deep clean”). While the ship sits on a Guam pier, under quarantine, all that combat capability is being wasted. It’s not the end of the world in the grand strategic sense, but such temporal disruptions are exactly what savvy adversaries look to exploit.
Ultimately, COVID-19 is a cautionary tale for the strategic future of the U.S. Navy. The prospect of contagious disease aboard ship is no longer something to be met with wry resignation and a joke about finding a bathroom. New diseases—and re-emerging old ones—have the potential to evolve beyond relatively harmless indignities. It is worth remembering that a disease that makes a sailor a bit sick could ultimately kill the mission.
Influenza is a debilitating but relatively short-term disease, quickly progressing to a resolution. It is relatively easy for a ship to absorb. A COVID-19-like disease—a contagious virus that forces victims into an extended quarantine and a long convalescent period—can do a lot to degrade operational capability. And in ships where there are few replacements for critical functions, the prospect of those sailors being consigned to a weeks-long stint in a stateroom to heal or to be in quarantine merits real and rigorous study. The same goes for diseases that require substantial medication—medication that might prevent pilots from flying or equipment operators from their posts.
Biomedical intelligence is important. And for far too long, America’s naval “warfighters” have, in the name of “warfighting” done everything they can to dismiss and downsize the medical corps. And that’s why the President and the Secretary of Defense had the uncomfortable duty see off the ancient USNS Comfort, an under-prepared, steam-powered hospital ship, as it sails out to fight a desperate battle that America’s esteemed “warfighters” never saw coming.
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