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.
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 April 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.