By Vice Admiral (retd) Vijay Shankar
Extracts from the Captain’s Journal INS Viraat, 2000hrs 1996 on deployment in the Arabian Sea:
“The Chicken-pox outbreak that began with four cases from the Seaman’s Mess two days ago has spread to seventy sailors. Infected personnel include Air Handlers, Mechanical Engineers and Seaman. Intentions: isolate all effected personnel in the vacant Amphibious troops Mess; make a South Easterly MLA at 20 knots for accomplishing night flying and surface attack Mission; close port of G… to 400 nautical miles for transfer of casualties along with sick bay attendants and a medical officer to consort at 0600h and onward to the base hospital at G… Intentions signalled to FOCWF info FOCinC West” (Command chain).
Occurrence of infections on board warships is not uncommon, but rarely is it allowed to jeopardise the mission at hand and even rarer is the occasion that a capital man-of-war steams “full ahead” into international headlines for want of decisiveness to control an internal situation. Indeed the infection and its context on board INS Viraat (see extracts from Captain’s Journal, above) bears little semblance to the USS Theodore Roosevelt (TR) and the “Wuhan virus,” episode for in the former case not only was the contagion a known factor with a large percentage of the crew having developed herd immunity (the varicella vaccine being available from 1995 onwards) and the scale of proportions being different (Viraat complement 1800, TR 4865); yet the operational imperative remains the same: primacy of the imminent task. And for an Aircraft Carrier Battle Group to put to pasture its main strike element is to recuse itself from the strategic dominance that it could have exercised in its area of responsibility.
The principal demand of naval war is to attain a posture that would permit control of oceanic spaces in order to influence the course of conflict. Elemental to this objective is therefore to provide the means to seize and exercise that control. The Aircraft Carrier’s intrinsic air power assisted by strike and denial forces provides the means to collar and assure security to maritime spaces of interest. Operational flexibility that the Carrier Group brings to bear include deterrence, support of amphibious operations, land attack missions, wide area domain awareness and domination and lastly command and control of large forces. The Carrier Group can also sustain conditions for long term offensive presence and power projection. The agility, firepower and suppleness that the Carrier Group bestows on Commander is unmatched by any other maritime force. The removal of TR from its area of responsibility will have left a gaping hole in the US ability to exercise control in the Western Pacific region. Currently TR remains pier side in Guam “completing carrier qualification before returning to sea.”
From a philosophical standpoint the culture in the Navy demands of its leadership single point ‘responsibility’ for actions, ‘accountability’ for the impact of those actions and then gives the leader the necessary ‘authority’ to drive towards his objective. The responsibility-accountability-authority nexus lies at the heart of leadership at sea. Above all else, the job of a naval leader is to prepare to fight and win wars. Too often in the daily grind of processing paperwork amidst misplaced career ambitions, leaders forget the reason the nation has a Navy and why they serve. From US naval tradition stands out Captain John Paul Jones who was hardly obsessing with daily drudgery when in 1778, he exhorted “I wish to have no connection with any ship that does not sail fast for I intend to go in harm’s way.” Those words which today form a part of maritime folklore contained the essence of leadership at sea, decisiveness.
Coming back to the TR case, the sequence of events that unfolded (salient excerpts only) tell its own ignoble story of wooliness:
- 17 January 2020. USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71), a Nimitz-class nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, departs San Diego with 4,865 sailors aboard. Capt. Brett Crozier is in command. In company is its strike elements for deployment in the western Pacific. A special “preventive medical unit” is aboard.
- 26 February. Defense Secretary Mark Esper directs combatant commanders to tell him before they make decisions about COVID-19.
- 22 March. First sailor onboard diagnosed with COVID-19.
- 26 March. TR begins testing entire crew for COVID-19.
- 29 March. Washington Post report: Crozier and his superior officers are “struggling” to reach a consensus on a plan of action. Chain of command included Rear Adm. Stuart Baker, embarked strike group commander; Admiral John Aquilino, commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet. Both admirals favoured smaller mitigation efforts for fear of mission jeopardy.”
- 30 March. Acting Secretary Modly, emphasizes “ that if [Crozier] felt that he was not getting the proper response from his chain of command, he had a direct line into his office. Crozier sends an unclassified e-mail comprising a 4-page memo to 20 or 30 Naval addressees, both within and without his chain of command. Crozier wrote: “The spread of the disease is ongoing and accelerating. Decisive action is required…We are not at war. Sailors do not need to die.”
- Wednesday 01 April. Crozier and his heads of department brief sailors on the evacuation plan, and begin to execute it. The plan, according to Modly, is: To leave 700 to 800 to 1,000 people on or near the ship to operate its nuclear reactors, guard weapons and keep the ship ready to sail. Modly calls Crozier directly and asks, “What’s the story?” and Crozier answered: “Sir, we were getting a lot more cases. I felt it was time to send out a signal flare.” About 4 p.m. at the Pentagon, Modly holds a joint press conference with CNO Adm. Michael Gilday, to address the situation onboard the Roosevelt. Modly suggests Commanders “should not be inhibited from telling us and being transparent about the issues that they see. But they need to do it through their chains of command. And if they’re not getting the proper responses from their chains of command, then they need to maybe go outside of it.”
- 02 April. Modly asserts Crozier told him that he didn’t ask for permission to bypass his chain of command because he knew Admiral Baker wouldn’t give it. He reaches the conclusion that “Captain Crozier had allowed the complexity of his challenge with the COVID breakout on the ship to overwhelm his ability to act professionally… and sends word down the chain of command that Crozier is to be relieved of Command. The CNO in turn directs VCNO Burke, to “conduct an investigation into the circumstances and the climate across the entire Pacific Fleet to help determine what may have contributed to this breakdown in the chain of command.” In the meantime at the Pentagon, Modly in a press conference proclaims Crozier was “absolutely correct” in raising his concerns. The error was “the way in which he did it.”
- 03 April 3. Acting Secretary Modly concludes, that “If Crozier didn’t think that information contained in his e-mail was going to get out into the public, then he was too naive or too stupid to be the commanding officer of a ship like this. The alternative is that he did this on purpose. And that’s a serious violation of the Uniform Code of Military Justice”. Crozier’s memo was a “betrayal of trust” to me and to you, he told the crew. “What your captain did was very, very wrong. There is never a situation where you should consider the media a part of your chain of command because the media has an agenda. And the agenda that they have depends on which side of the political aisle they sit on. By April 14 total crew members that tested positive: 589, remainder negative.
- Captain Crozier has been washed ashore as the Special Assistant to the the Navy Air forces Chief of Staff; he is neither eligible for command nor to go to sea in any capacity as of date (24 June 2020).
The Sea is an unrelenting mistress; it brooks no dawdling and provides no quarter for exculpation. The author, having commanded an Aircraft Carrier and a Fleet, notes a host of disquieting points that stand out in this sordid affair: Firstly, the outrageous levels of incompetent and unsolicited political interference in the operational control of a warship and the willing compliance of the Naval hierarchy. Secondly, the appalling indecisiveness of the chain of command. Why was it that the first-response, a traditional function of the man at sea, took all of 8 days (22 Mar-30 Mar) to engineer? Lastly it is perplexing how readily the chain of command was violated and the Captain so brazenly annexed authority to second guess the reaction of his immediate superior Rear Admiral Baker. Of course, the Captain is responsible for the safety of his ship’s company and “sailors do not (indeed) need to die” so, what action did he take (for crying out aloud) other than release snivelling e-mails that neither have the vitality nor the gravitas to stimulate a vigorous response.
Whatever became of the much cherished US naval chain of command? Was it sacrificed on the altar of the Supreme Commander’s view in the fall out of the Wuhan Virus… after all as reports suggest were the Presidents courtiers all too blind to the realities of command of an aircraft carrier.