When COVID-19 struck, the nation was unprepared for the speed and devastating staying power of this world-wide pandemic. The U.S. Navy has not been spared the trials associated with it, yet sailors have maintained a staunch and stubborn readiness to keep ships at sea, ready to meet their mission. In December 2019, the Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) Admiral Mike Gilday issued a fragmentary order that provides three specific areas of focus: Warfighting, Warfighters, and the Future Navy. The Navy has used these focus areas to shape its efforts to engage this new ‘invisible enemy,’ maintaining readiness and preserving the fleet’s ability to project power and influence overseas.
The current pandemic is not the first time the fleet has dealt with contagious infections at sea. In the late-nineteenth century, Europe was in the midst of an influenza pandemic. Flu cases rose sharply on the USS Boston, Yorktown, Atlanta, and Chicago in 1889 after they made a port call to Lisbon. Nearly 40 percent of the crews were sickened, and one sailor died.1
Twenty years later, the 1918 influenza pandemic resulted in mass outbreaks both afloat and shore. This time, nearly 100,000 sailors and Marines contracted the illness and more than 5,000 died—three times the total combat casualties that year.2 While tragic, it could have been much worse. Preventive measures implemented then, including handwashing and isolation, were effective in slowing the disease and containing its spread. Now, the Navy is applying these same techniques and lessons to keep the fleet healthy from COVID-19. Yet, to continue this positive trend, we must all embrace the CNO’s directive to “think differently . . . find every competitive advantage” and stay the course.
An Operational Advantage
A ship can be a veritable petri dish for this adversary. On the other hand, a crew at sea and virus free has an advantage—isolation. Assuming a clean ship, operational employment changes little, albeit with a few exceptions for logistics and manning. Because warfighting is the first pillar, the Navy must always be ready to fight and win, in any domain. COVID-19 does not change this, it simply modifies the manner in which we generate and sustain readiness. Plans are drawn up, briefings held, and watches stood, but now those involved wear masks and adhere to appropriate social distancing. Timelines are adjusted to include obligatory quarantine and restriction of movement (ROM) periods. Far from a new idea, “battle berthing,” where members fulfilling critical duties are berthed apart, has experienced a resurgence with good effect. Even the traditional “cleaning stations” and “sweepers” have added benefit now that foxtail and broom are paired with antiseptic spray and rags. Extra cleaning and caution are justified as the mission and survivability of the ship and crew are at risk if an outbreak occurs.
On board the USS Nimitz (CVN-68), we protect crew health and preserve combat readiness through a layered, defense-in-depth concept in which designated clean areas and ships are protected through successively more stringent layers. Inbound permanent-change-of-station (PCS) sailors are required to serve a 14-day quarantine period at a designated personnel cohort. Colloquially referred to as Camp COVID, this pre-departure sequester detachment in San Diego is operated by shore commands with supplemental afloat personnel. After the incoming sailors (PG) complete quarantine, they are tested for COVID-19. Provided the results are negative, they join the ship through a closely controlled evolution. Transportation to the pier, medical checks prior to the entry control point, and daily self-evaluation cumulatively assist in maintaining a COVID free environment. This process has been effective and is now standard across the fleet.
Despite these processes, there have been outbreaks on some ships, most notably the one that sidelined the USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71) in Guam. Previously declared clean ships find themselves in extremis when spiraling case counts exceed at-sea organic medical capabilities. Some sailors who initially tested negative days later exhibited symptoms, injecting uncertainty and sometimes an excessive response. The primary hazard is when senior leaders skip the chain of command and direct action at the unit/tactical level. Instead, unit commanders must be empowered to make decisions, maintain operational readiness, and given the leeway to react to individual circumstances. Retired commander Paul Giarra’s “Dealing with Coronavirus in the Navy…” summarized the concept well: every ship and command is different and a one size-fits all approach does not work. There are plenty of tools—both procedural, as described above, and practical, such as proper handwashing and sanitizing surfaces—that have proven effective at stopping or limiting the virus’s spread. And these tools can be shaped by individual commanders to ensure their units remain mission capable.
Balancing the Roles
How has COVID-19 impacted individual sailors? While at the tier-one level, focus is on protecting fleet readiness, a sailor’s field of regard is much smaller. The CNO’s second pillar, “Warfighters,” focuses on recruiting, training, educating, and retaining sailors. This may be the most challenging of the three pillars in a COVID-constrained environment.
Logistics problems related to moving people are a challenge. The additional steps for screening, sanitizing, and ‘no-touch’ transfers undoubtedly slow the process, but the greatest detractor for strike groups at sea is when the pace of COD flights is reduced in accordance with efforts to prevent disease spread. This impacts the delivery of high-priority parts and other items necessary to keep ships and aircraft operating. Reflected in the ship’s endurance ratings, currently the only response is increased replenishment at sea. Fortunately, Navy logistics can bounce back as more vendors return to service and offer greater flexibility of support.
It is not all bad news; operating a ship at sea remains largely unchanged. The daily rhythm of quarters, sweepers, and meals, as well as the repetitive nature of a deployment lends comfort in its normalcy. Minor changes like wearing face masks, relaxing grooming standards, and limiting the number of shoppers in the ship’s store are also fairly standard. From the sailor’s perspective, these practical measures make sense and in certain cases, are burdens shared by friends and family at home. Command morale programs, frequent celebratory meals (with appropriate social distancing) and regular communication from the commanding officer, executive officer, and command master chief all play a part in keeping the crew focused and effective.
The Art in the Science
The CNO’s last pillar is our “Future Navy” and how to get there. The right capabilities at the right time, enhancing core warfighting advantages, and leveraging new and existing technologies all support this cause. One area of promise is field medical testing where leading-edge equipment and enhanced procedures are used on board large deck ships. These capabilities were deployed with startling speed when an emergency use authorization was provided by the FDA, and the Navy’s Bureau of Medicine and Surgery rushed to get greater testing capability to the fleet.
On board the Nimitz, for example, some testing demand has been met by existing technology, such as the BioFire FilmArray system. This Navy program of record was originally developed for biowarfare agent analysis, but it can also be used to detect viral particles through a replication process called reverse transcription—polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR). Previously, samples were flown off ship to shore based laboratories, but Biofire allows embarked medical professionals to test for COVID-19 on board. This system can process one sample per hour, which was enough before the pandemic, but COVID-19 outbreaks require greater capacity. The ABI QuantStudio 3 is a newer machine that uses the same RT-PCR process, but ten times faster, and it has ruggedized construction and reduced sensitivity to ship vibrations, making it a natural fit for the fleet.
Finally, the Navy has deployed PhD medical scientists to aircraft carriers and big-deck amphibious ships to improve testing and data collection in the fleet. Samples taken from smaller combatants are transferred by helicopter to the carrier or LHA/LHD, extending the reach of this program and yielding critical data necessary for commanders to make informed decisions and shape subsequent mitigation plans.3
Lessons learned from previous pandemics are valid today. Proper, frequent handwashing remains the single most effective preventative measure. Cleaning surfaces with disinfectant kills COVID-19 and reduces contact transmission. Face masks prevent person-to-person aerosol transmission (droplet spread).4 And isolating sick sailors can prevent further virus spread. One hundred percent coverage is a near impossibility (even for a ship at sea) and there will likely always be some level of contagion present. Viral loading certainly plays a part in the subsequent epidemiology curves, but rapidly testing and removing sick members from the crew is critical.
Unfortunately, the Navy is subject to social norms, political pressure, and ill-informed decisions. Crewmembers chaff at requirements that do not, on the surface, make sense and leaders struggle to enforce restrictions on what is essentially human nature. The logistical piece too needs to be worked out. As carrier endurance ratings approach type-commander directed standards, replenishment at sea evolutions must increase in frequency resulting in greater accepted risk. All that said, there are solutions in work, and each additional day operating under COVID constraints yields new data to further refine and improve procedures and develop a more flexible fleet better able to adapt to changing social, logistical, and operational landscapes. By leveraging the tenets of Warfighting, Warfighter, and the Future Navy, we can meet the invisible enemy and continue to generate combat readiness today and into the future
- “The Navy and the Flu, A War within a War,” James Leuci, MCPO (ret), 27 Mar 2020, p. 4.
- Leuci, p. 7.
- LCDR Kelly Nobles, USN, ship’s scientist on board the USS Nimitz (CVN-68), interview with the author, 29 May 2020.
- “Respiratory Infections in the U.S. Military: Recent Experience and Control,” Clinical Microbiology Reviews, (July 2015), Vol. 28, Number 3, p. 747.