The coronavirus outbreak on board the USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71) and other Navy ships revealed an immediate short-term challenge with possible long-lasting impact. The Navy learned how to establish and maintain bubbles to keep the silent and deadly virus off ships, and it developed various processes to protect vulnerable crews during maintenance, training, deployment, and sustainment phases. While these short-term mitigating measures have kept infections to a minimum and are now becoming a routine part of fleet operations, if not managed correctly, they could have an adverse impact on the future force, the public perception of the service, and the Navy’s strategic position in the great power competition.
The Navy recently celebrated the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN-69) and USS San Jacinto (CG-56) completing more than 200 days at sea, new records that were quickly surpassed by the USS Stout (DDG-55). There are many other ships spending three to six weeks in port prior to deployment with their crews sequestered (called ROM-sequester) to guarantee the virus is kept off the ships. Even bringing meals, mail, parts, and stores on board ships is closely controlled to minimize interaction between those in ROM-sequester and everyone else. The pandemic has complicated personnel losses prior to deployments, because the type commander must have supernumeraries identified in anticipation of last-minute changes. It is not unusual for someone to end up in predeployment ROM-sequester as a supernumerary, only to be notified three weeks later that he or she is not needed. Once a ship deploys, routine personnel moves on and off the ship are difficult at best, because port visits are few and far between, if they happen at all.
In spite of these challenges, the Navy can use the pandemic to continue to improve quality of service while answering the nation’s call to duty. In addition to the numerous policies already in place to keep the novel coronavirus off deployed ships, the following short- and long-term actions should be taken or expanded on:
- Expand the mission to support ally and partner pandemic efforts. In his FragO 01/2019, Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Michael Gilday requires the fleet to reassure allies and partners. There is no better opportunity to do so than during the pandemic, when so many countries lack access to basic services and medical supplies. The massive U.S. relief effort following the 2004 tsunami off Indonesia brought goodwill and deepened the diplomatic relationship with a mostly Muslim nation at a time when the war on terror was deeply unpopular in some Muslim communities. During the COVID pandemic, there is the added complexity of keeping crews safe during relief efforts. However, this is a challenge the Navy is more than capable of overcoming, and every effort should be undertaken to determine how to execute humanitarian assistance/disaster relief missions to the fullest extent.
- Transform Navy Morale, Welfare, and Recreation (MWR) support to the fleet. At the start of the pandemic, gyms, movie theaters, and many other MWR facilities were rightfully closed. Some facilities are now reopening, while others are supporting sailors in ROM-sequester with services such as an online order delivery. However, the level of services provided is nowhere near pre-pandemic levels. Consider that many ships are deploying with little opportunity for quality-of-life port visits. If deployed crews are unable to go to recreation facilities, the Navy should make every effort to move the recreation facilities to the ships. For example, place a barge near the fantail of a moored or anchored ship with a comedian, band, or magician/entertainer that the crew can observe from a safe distance. Understandably, no commander wants to be responsible for introducing a virus onto a ship, but some options should be explored and implemented if deemed safe for everyone involved.
- Make predeployment ROM-sequester a “deployed event” for operational tempo and personnel tempo purposes. OPNAV 3000.13D requires reporting and tracking of individual sailor and unit deployment time to ensure specific thresholds are not exceeded, and current guidance allows commanding officers to use their judgment in classifying an event as a deployment or nondeployment event. From the sailor’s perspective, deployment starts when he or she shows up to the ship. It makes no difference to the sailor if the ship is pierside in Norfolk or San Diego or is in the middle of the Pacific.
- Furthermore, when in a continental U.S. home port during a predeployment ROM-sequester period, the days do not count toward hardship duty pay–tempo (HDP-T). HDP-T is payable after 221 consecutive days of deployment and can be up to $495 per month, prorated daily. Once a sailor embarks for predeployment ROM-sequester, the deployed event should be processed and count toward HDP-T and other pay and benefits, such as family separation allowance.
- Implement a formal process that allows sailors to tell their own stories on social media. Navy crews are doing incredible work every day, but those results are being overshadowed by negative press on a multitude of issues. The public does not understand as well as it could what sailors do, how difficult and unforgiving sea duty can be, or the immense responsibility sailors shoulder. There is no better person to tell that story than the Navy sailor. A search on YouTube for Navy boot camp or Navy life at sea returns not only the official Navy stories, but also numerous YouTube channels owned by sailors who provide a mostly balanced view of their experiences. Even more impressive is the fact that the likes and subscribers for these channels are in the thousands, and in some cases hundreds of thousands. With 73 percent of American adults using YouTube, should our public affairs officers not assist sailors in using social media even more to help the Navy reach its target audience?
The Navy’s response to COVID-19 has been nothing short of impressive. Leaders acted to protect crews, maintain combat readiness, and answer the nation’s call in spite of the additional mitigation burdens. However, these additional burdens will make it harder to retain quality personnel. One need only to look back on the effect high post-9/11 operational tempo had on retention to be worried. Asking sailors to do more without seeking ways to minimize negative effects to their quality of life will cause many of them to vote with their feet and leave the service, even with the economy in a recession.