Tuesday, April 7, 2020

Guam Hands: Coronavirus

As high value assets with geopolitical importance, Aircraft Carriers and Ballistic Missile Submarines mythically have a “direct line to the President”. An enemy had incapacitated the nuclear powered aircraft carrier USS Roosevelt; not the Iranian Navy, who practice sinking American warships on simulator; nor was it an explosive garbage skiff, the kind which sent USS Cole home early from deployment. The enemy is coronavirus, waging its war on the crew of USS Roosevelt.

As crewmembers fell ill, with cases outnumbering the capacity of the shipboard medical team, the Commanding Officer of the carrier would’ve sent Navy Pinnacle messages through classified lines, notifying the Secretary of the Navy and the Secretary of Defense. Decision was made to bring the ailing ship into Guam to isolate the ill and provide the remaining sailors some needed social distancing.    

Loose lips sank ships in World War Two, but “Loose Tweets Sink Fleets” in the 21st century. At sea, it is possible to secure non-essential communications in a maneuver dubbed “River City”. Loose messages sent by email or by satellite phone are held in queue. Meanwhile, the CTs (cryptologic technicians) can sniff out any renegade short-wave radio sets. But once the ship is in sight of land, personal cellphones fly out of pockets and into texting hands. Relatively speaking, it is better for an experienced Captain’s letter to leak to the press, than for a hundred crewmembers’ social media posts to become news of the day. “Damned if you do, damned if you don’t”.

“Restriction of Movement”, the military term for coronavirus self-isolation, is a major undertaking on Guam. On a normal day, housing costs for sailors and airmen “living on the economy”- off the base- is overpriced. A single off-base event like Chief’s Gala or Navy Birthday Ball can sell out every mid-price hotel on Guam. To house thousands of sailors under restriction of movement, empty tourist hotels are being requisitioned for self-quarantine.

The infected sailors will lean heavily on the benefits of youth. Of greater concern is that a number of highly-skilled chiefs and officers are in their 40’s and 50’s; as leaders, maintainers and reactor operators, their skills are still needed onboard this ship. Healthcare facilities are limited in Guam. There is a sizeable Naval Hospital, which serves active duty and retirees. Many Guam residents travel three hours by plane to Manila, Philippines for specialized medical care; likewise Filipino veterans of the US Armed Forces are entitled to care on Guam. International travel has been curtailed: three Manila flights per day has turned into three flights per week.

Once the fog of war clears, the military or Congress owes Captain Crozier, USS Roosevelt’s relieved commanding officer, a hearing into how the regular lines of communication broke down. Shortcomings in operational security occur at the highest levels, to include then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who had some trouble with sensitive government emails on a personal computer. Assuming no prejudice is held, Captain Crozier’s future remains bright.

Command of an aircraft carrier is one of the highest accomplishments among US Navy officers. One must be a smart and tactical aviator, a competent ship’s skipper, and a trusted military leader. In general terms, an American aircraft carrier can be described as a city squeezed between a nuclear power plant and international airport, with the perimeter of a warship. This is a unique responsibility. Today, with the assistance of civilian mariners, commanding officers of hospital ships and submarine tenders do not cross-train as surface ship operators, which can take a decade in ascending billets; after accomplishing mastery in their primary warfare community. These traditionally were officer-of-the-deck, executive officer, and commanding officer of a large auxiliary ship. Aircraft carriers stand alone in years of a specialized preparation track.

(Between assignments supporting aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush, and the Guam-based submarine tenders, this developing story is of interest to me.)

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