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Pentagon struggles to stay ahead of virus as infections rise, ship sidelined

The aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt. (Anthony Rivera/U.S. Navy)

The Pentagon is struggling to stay ahead of the widening coronavirus pandemic as early missteps start piling up, a scattershot response sows confusion and the Navy is forced to sideline an aircraft carrier.

The USS Theodore Roosevelt, a 5,000-person aircraft carrier meant to be patrolling the Pacific and South China Sea, is instead sitting dockside in Guam indefinitely as the number of infected sailors rises daily. Infections started cropping up after an early March port call in Vietnam, which Pentagon leaders say had about 16 known virus cases at the time.

Defense Secretary Mark Esper says he’s leaving key decisions about how to address the outbreak to local commanders. But as infections mount and more warriors are sidelined, Pentagon leaders will face difficult questions about how to stay fully ready to confront rivals from North Korea to Iran and how to signal unflagging resolve to such adversaries.

“The military is torn between its need to maintain operations, which cannot be done with ‘social distancing,’ and the need to restrict interactions to inhibit infections,” said Mark Cancian, a military analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington who’s a retired Marine Corps colonel. “It has still not figured out how to strike that balance.”

The piecemeal approach means that, in some cases, basic precautions that prevent troops from being put at risk are being ignored. Across the U.S., civilian barbers are still driving onto military bases to give Marines buzz cuts. That was a decision the top Marine struggled to explain at a news briefing Thursday.

“Everybody’s still getting their heads shaved as long as the barbers come to work,” said General David Berger, the Marine Corps commandant. “Things like grooming standards — barber shops in one area may be open, and in another base they may be closed. So we very much trust the leaders to make those calls, and we’ve given them the latitude to waive requirements where it’s not practical to meet them.”

As of Friday, the Pentagon said there have been 309 confirmed cases of coronavirus among active military personnel, a small fraction of the force. But the case of the USS Roosevelt encapsulates how quickly a seemingly minor problem can hamper one of the world’s biggest warships.

After the first three sailors on the carrier were evacuated, Acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly projected confidence about the ship’s status, saying it would continue sailing.

“This is an example of our ability to keep our ships deployed at sea, underway even with active Covid-19 cases,” Modly said March 24. But two days later, the carrier was sidelined indefinitely in Guam as the Navy tries to contain the outbreak.

Emma Moore, a researcher on military and veterans issues at the Center for a New American Security, said the virus outbreak has resulted in some “cringe-worthy” decisions being made as the military sorts out which personnel and missions are more essential than others.

“Ultimately this public health crisis has shown that the military has gaps to fix in areas it would have considered itself an expert: communication, fast response, logistics, and organization,” Moore said, citing how the Navy continued crowded meetings in close quarters on ships and the barbers still are coming on to bases to give Marines buzz cuts.

Like many states and cities, the military’s ability even to test for the virus is limited. Modly said in an interview Friday with Hugh Hewitt that the Roosevelt can test about 200 sailors per day, meaning it would take more than three weeks to test everyone on board. But he disputed the idea that the ship would be out of action if major hostilities erupted.

“If there was a reason for her to go into action she would just go,” Modly said. “She’s close enough to some trouble spots that she could mobilize and go quickly.”

There have been other missteps. The Army briefly stopped most training exercises only to restart them days later. And the service waited until Thursday to raise its health protection status to “D,” the highest level, for critical rapid-response forces that would be deployed in a national security crisis, in order to keep those troops isolated and ready to fight.

“All the chiefs are wrestling with the same issue or same challenges,” General James McConville, the Army chief of staff, said in a press briefing on Thursday. “They want to protect the force, but at the same time they know they have a mission to protect, and that’s the balance.” He added that “we need to do more to limit exposure, especially for those who are not doing mission essential tasks.”

It wasn’t until March 13 that the Pentagon established a coordination task force to work closely with Office of the Secretary of Defense, Joint Staff, the military services and other agencies to develop policy documents and provide recommendations to senior leadership, according to a memo signed by Navy Captain Oliver Lewis, the Defense Department’s executive secretary.

At the same time, the Pentagon has earned praise for ramping up to help in the national fight against the virus, deploying two hospital ships to hard-hit New York City and Los Angeles and picking up all the costs for National Guard troops deployed to help stem the crisis, instead of requiring cost-sharing from cash-strapped state governments. It also closed recruitment centers.

Before Congress managed to draft an economic stimulus bill to help workers and businesses impacted by the pandemic, the Pentagon moved quickly to accelerate payments to contractors to help ensure they keep production lines open.

Military leaders also have praised General Robert Abrams, the commander of U.S. forces in South Korea, for taking drastic measures to prevent troops from being exposed to the coronavirus by locking down bases in February, as that country’s outbreak exploded.

“Where the threat was most acute, the leadership acted the quickest and most decisively,” said Thomas Spoehr, a retired Army lieutenant general and director of the Center for National Defense at the Heritage Foundation.

Some military leaders concede the scope of the virus threat wasn’t fully understood before it took root globally.

“We started putting some of these data points together and trying to string it together over the course of February,” Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy, who visited South Korea to see the situation firsthand in February, said at the Pentagon Thursday. “It’s just been a very, very complex issue that’s taken time to get the data points together.”

Pentagon leaders have warned that adversaries will seek to take advantage of any weakness, real or perceived, in the U.S.’s focus or military strength because of the pandemic. Since the outbreak started, North Korea has launched short-range ballistic missiles in defiance of international sanctions, while Iranian proxies have staged attacks on bases in Iraq where the U.S. has troops.

Such threats are also why some things won’t change unless the outbreak in the military gets far worse.

Berger, the Marine commandant, signaled as much when he was asked about the wisdom of large-scale formations at rifle ranges and training exercises that are continuing. “The Marine Corps is unique,” he said Thursday. “We are mandated by law to be the nation’s most ready force, and that’s what I think you expect us to be.”

But epidemiologists have warned countries against an uncoordinated response to the pandemic, saying strong measures in one area can be undermined by weaker responses elsewhere. Nations like Italy and Iran that have reacted slowly, or in a haphazard fashion, have had some of the highest infection and death rates.

While the Pentagon isn’t a nation-state, it operates like one. In addition to 1.3 million active-duty service members, the military runs fleets of planes and ships, operates grocery stores, staffs recruitment centers in strip malls and functions as the chief employer in many communities.

For now, the Pentagon is sticking with its position that local commanders are best-suited to make the right decisions, and warning that disruptions from the virus could last for months.

“I trust upon our commanders and our senior enlisted personnel to do the right thing particular to your unit, to your situation, to your mission,” Esper said during a virtual town hall on Tuesday. “It’s up to the commanders and senior NCOs to make the right calls relevant to their situation to ensure that we protect our people while at the same time maintaining mission readiness.”


© 2020 Bloomberg News

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