The United States has administered more than 289 million COVID-19 vaccinations to date (including 130 million people who have received both doses). Approximately 230 million Americans should be fully vaccinated by August 2021. Despite these impressive numbers, much of the world remains vastly behind the United States in not only administering vaccines, but basic access to vaccines for their populations. With U.S. industrial might and coordination ramping up in the vaccine rollout, the country should look beyond its borders to address the epidemic globally.
The Navy’s Humanitarian Assistance History
The Navy has a long and storied role in humanitarian missions. As early as 1908, the Navy provided aid to Messina, Sicily, when it was hit by an estimated 7.1 magnitude earthquake that killed approximately 80,000 people. The Great White Fleet was in the Suez Canal on its voyage around the world when President Theodore Roosevelt directed it to provide humanitarian assistance.
In 2004, Indonesia was hit by the most destructive tsunami ever recorded, killing more than 150,000 people. In response, the Navy coordinated a multinational mission to deliver food, supplies, and emergency medical care for the hundreds of thousands impacted. The Navy’s response to the tsunami illustrated the true logistical power it can wield with the proper political and public backing. Operation Unified Assistance established a task force that dedicated approximately 15,000 U.S. military personnel, 45 fixed-wing aircraft, 58 helicopters, and 25 ships to the humanitarian mission.
The speed and severity of the destruction from the 2004 tsunami shocked the world. Yet within two weeks, the majority of the U.S. military personnel assigned were in place to provide assistance. The tsunami and the COVID-19 pandemic are two very different scenarios, but many of the lessons from Operation Unified Assistance can be applied to the current pandemic to assist in administering vaccines around the world.
The COVID-19 pandemic has killed nearly 3.5 million people to date in a little more than a year. More than 1.7 billion vaccine doses have been administered globally, but almost half have been administered in the United States and China. The immense disparity in vaccine distribution could spell trouble, not only for countries unable to vaccinate their populations, but for largely vaccinated countries as well. New variants of the virus continue to develop that could lead to decreased effectiveness of current vaccines.
Before this occurs, the United States must use its Navy to help transport, store, and administer vaccines to those governments unable to vaccinate their populations. This offer should be supplied to all countries in need of assistance, not only U.S. allies.
The Navy’s Role
The Navy has the logistical capability to administer vaccines quickly and efficiently around the world. The Navy could address some of the more daunting tasks, such as the ability to transfer, properly store, and administer the vaccine. The United States should rely on its allies and their assets as well. During Operation Unified Assistance, Combined Support Force (CSF) 536 not only increased efficiency but established operational and diplomatic ties with many of the countries in the affected region. Similar joint task forces could be established in South America, Africa, Asia, and Oceania, where vaccine rates are currently lowest. These combined task forces would work together with local countries, increasing our operational ties while, more importantly, assisting our forces on how to best and most efficiently deploy assets in new regions.
The hospital ships USNS Mercy (T-AH-19) and Comfort (T-AH-20) were deployed in the early stages of the pandemic to provide medical assistance to Los Angeles and New York City, respectively. They should be deployed again to the areas of most need, remaining in port for two to three weeks (depending on which vaccine they are supplied with) to provide initial shots and boosters. This also will allow them to address additional local health issues with their extensive medical facilities and staff.
Hospital ships are not the only U.S. ships capable of administering the vaccine. Amphibious ships can also provide medical assistance and staff during a humanitarian crisis. The Navy’s largest amphibious ships—amphibious assault ships (LHDs) and landing helicopter assault ships (LHAs)—have medical facilities and staff on board that can administer the vaccine. They also have large welldecks and hangar bays that provide ample space for vaccine storage. Amphibious transport docks (LPDs) could also be used for the storage and transport of vaccines as well as administer vaccines in their smaller welldecks or on their flight decks.
U.S. aircraft carriers are not specifically designed for medical or humanitarian missions like some amphibious ships. However, the impact of the USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN-72) deployment during the 2004 tsunami disaster relief cannot be overstated. China’s military capability has significantly grown since 2004 but its two aircraft carriers and operational capabilities do not match those of the United States. Dedicating an aircraft carrier strike group to assist in administering vaccines and supplying aircraft to establish vaccine locations inland would prominently display the U.S. dedication to combat the virus globally. It would also create similar feelings of goodwill and global commitment felt during Operation Unified Assistance in Indonesia.
Aircraft assigned to carrier and expeditionary strike groups can transport supplies and medical personnel into more remote regions away from the coast. Temporary medical facilities and camps could be established in areas that normally do not have easy access to medical treatment, increasing the reach of the humanitarian mission.
Finally, Military Sealift Command (MSC) should help transfer vaccines to the hospital ships and large amphibious warships as they administer doses. Although LHDs and LHAs are large warships, MSC would replenish these ships with vaccines to ensure vaccines can be offered and administered to all that require them. MSC’s fleet of 130 ships could rapidly and efficiently move large quantities of the vaccine. This would enable ships dedicated to administering the vaccine more time on scene while constantly being replenished as they exhaust their supplies.
A coordinated global mission to help administer the COVID-19 vaccine is the type of mission the U.S. military—and particularly the Navy—is capable of accomplishing. While U.S. competitors China and Russia ship vaccines to many countries in need, they have neither the capability nor the dedication to deploy their armed forces to transport and oversee administering vaccines at scale.
The COVID-19 epidemic has wreaked havoc on the world and created immense suffering and disruption. The true impact of the epidemic has yet to be calculated, but experts agree it has caused exponentially more damage in developing countries. It is time for the United States to take the helm in global affairs once again and use its unmatched naval assets to help vaccinate the world.