Now that the investigation into the decisions by Navy Captain Brett Crozier, the former commanding officer (CO) of the USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71) is complete and, for the moment, the case seems closed, two conclusions are striking. First, former Acting Secretary of the Navy Thomas Modly seems to have been right in relieving him. Second, the chain of command did not work. Had it, Crozier would still be in command, and former Vice Chief Admiral Robert Burke would not have had to lead an investigation into the circumstances surrounding the outbreak of COVID-19 on board the ship.
At a press conference last Friday, with Secretary of the Navy Kenneth Braithwaite at his side, Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) Admiral Mike Gilday reversed himself on reinstating the aircraft carrier’s former skipper. If he had had all the facts at the time, the CNO said he would have relieved the captain. The carrier strike group’s commander, Rear Admiral (lower half) Stuart Baker, has had his promotion to two-star admiral deferred awaiting further investigation of his role.
The former Acting Secretary of the Navy’s decision to relieve the CO underscored problems within the chain of command that the investigation of the incident did not choose to review. Based on Mr. Modly’s interviews with the Washington Post’s David Ignatius, the Acting Secretary was concerned that senior Navy leaders were not responding to the outbreak on the Theodore Roosevelt with sufficient urgency. When he raised this with the CNO, Admiral Gilday’s advice was to allow the chain of command to work. Unsatisfied with that answer, Mr. Modly and his chief of staff called Captain Crozier telling him that if the ship needed further assistance, a direct line was open to the Acting Secretary.
According to Modly, Crozier responded that additional help was unnecessary. He then fired off the infamous email calling for help, immediately causing the Acting Secretary to question his judgment and fitness to command. Mr. Modly called Rear Admiral Baker asking if he concurred with the decision to relieve Crozier. Baker said yes.
Admiral Burke’s investigation was thorough. But it clearly showed that the chain of command did not work. While the Seventh and Pacific Fleet Commanders and staffs were commended for their efforts and actions, that did not translate down to the strike group commander and the ship’s CO. Confusion about which courses of action to follow and what to do about quarantining and off-loading infected crew members persisted between the senior echelons in the chain of command and the ship. In simple terms, communications did not resolve this confusion about courses of action.
The intent and directions set by the Seventh Fleet Commander were either not fully understood or accepted by Captain Crozier. Based on what we know so far, the investigation did not explain why or how that occurred. Nor did the report reveal why the precautions explicitly stated in various Navy and other instructions were not followed by the ship and its medical department.
As a result, Admiral Gilday sustained the relief of the CO. Already, that decision has generated criticism about the CNO’s judgment that initially called for reinstatement. Some still will assert Crozier should have been returned to command, although the investigation was quite conclusive in its findings. Given the unusual manner in which Admiral Gilday became CNO following Admiral William Moran’s decision to decline the appointment, this criticism may linger.
For a military service chief to change his mind over such an important matter is unusual, though Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley recently apologized for appearing with the President at the Lafayette Square photo-op last month. Perhaps that apology supports the CNO’s reversal.
Most important, what lessons were learned from this episode, not only for dealing with a pandemic but other crises regarding the chain-of-command when immediate action may be vital? The Navy’s preparations for dealing with the pandemic were shown by the events on board the Theodore Roosevelt to have been insufficient.
What will happen in other unanticipated crises—to include the possibility of a U.S. warship opening fire either in response to an attack by a third party or in error, such as when the USS Vincennes (CG-49) mistakenly shot down a civilian Iranian airliner in 1988? This would be a good moment to review contingency plans across the board, especially as certain foreign navies are becoming more aggressive in interactions at sea.
As I noted recently, the new Secretary of the Navy, Kenneth Braithwaite, has called out the Navy for a failure of leadership. It would seem the chain of command did not work as it should in this case—regardless the intent at all levels. Understanding why must be a top priority.
Given that the Navy has had four secretaries (or acting secretaries) in three years, mishandled the war crimes case against SEAL Chief Eddie Gallagher, and failed to produce a plan to reach a force structure of 355 ships—Braithwaite has a point.
Crises present opportunities. If there ever were a time for a profound internal examination of the Navy on what it is doing right, what it is not, and how to fix its problems, it is now. If the Navy leadership is indeed failing as the secretary asserted, it needs to be corrected!