USS Theodore Roosevelt: Cracks in the Command Structure and the Demolition of its Captain

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.

Wuhan Virus: Has Something Gone Eerily Wrong?

 

By

Vice Admiral (retd) Vijay Shankar 

This article may be accessed at http://ipcs.org/comm_select.php?articleNo=5668 on the IPCS Web Journal.

The history of armed conflicts is intertwined with the generation of diseases. From antiquity in 1155, when the German Holy Roman Emperor Barbarossa poisoned water wells with human bodies in Tortona, Italy as he challenged the papacy, to 1763 when the British deliberately distributed small pox infected blankets to Native American Indians. In recent history during World War I the Spanish influenza caused a pandemic accounting for over 50 million lives. Now imagine a weaponized variant of the pathogen, genetically engineered for survival, binary in nature with artificial intelligence implants to disable or enable the virus, and you have a controllable doomsday weapon. Pathogens with manipulated physiognomies are the next generation of damnable biologic agents; China allegedly leads a covert programme of research in this field.

China’s Biological Warfare (BW) Program is both defensive and offensive in nature and functions as a civil-military amalgam. It is believed to be in an advanced stage that includes weaponization. Its current inventory comprises the full range of traditional biological agents. This, notwithstanding China having ratified the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) in 1984 that prohibits the “development and stockpiling of bacteriological weapons” and decreed their destruction. In the absence of instruments for verification, the BWC has not translated to embargo.

A combination of geopolitical factors may have influenced Chinese leadership into embracing a BW programme. The first is of a historical nature; between 1933 and 1945 Japanese BW attacks and experimentation on Chinese populations killed 270,000 (Chinese news agency Xinhua, also recognised by Japanese scholars). Second, the Chinese belief that the United States conducted BW offensive operations in China and North Korea during the Korean War (1950–53); from 1950 onwards the US possessed an operational BW arsenal till sworn off in 1969. The final factor concerns the erstwhile Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). Allegedly, towards the end of World War II, USSR conducted experiments with plague, diphtheria, anthrax and cholera pathogens (Hoffman, The Dead Hand) in Soviet-occupied Mongolia. China’s strategic cooperation in general, involvement with Soviet BW programme in particular and awareness of the goings on at the centre of Soviet research,  on the remote island of Vozrozhdeniye in the Sea of Aral would have, undoubtedly provided inspiration to China’s thinking on this mode of warfare. Strategic motivations were governed by their abstract reasoning of the nature and use of weapons of mass destruction in a life and death struggle. Today, as George Keenan had suggested in 1947, China needs the spectre of a permanent enemy to justify its security apparatus.

Under Chairman Mao, from 1949 to 1977, these sensitivities led increasingly to preparation for total war and an arsenal for waging it. By 1978, hamstrung by the terror of the Cultural Revolution and blinkered by its ideological obsession, Chinese Premier Deng Xiaoping saw the quest for strategic dominance being stymied by the absence of development and direction. He presided over an end to street power and, in a radical veering from orthodoxy, sought from society the release of dormant capitalistic energies. This kicked off one of the most impactful economic reformations of the 20th century. By 1990, in the wake of the carnage of Tiananmen and the collapse of communism in Europe, China’s military policy was dictated by Deng’s “24 character doctrine”; importantly it mandated a watch, wait and build covert capacities approach. These capacities included the ability to wage BW. The Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao dispensations, from 1993 to 2012 quite steadfastly continued with Deng’s policies and path of Controlled Capitalism.

China’s BW strategy is a declaration of their resolve to make genetic weapons instruments of “bloodless victory.”  In 2016, the Chinese government launched the National Gene Bank, which is the world’s largest repository of genetic data. It aims to “use China’s genetic resources, safeguard national security in bioinformatics, and enhance China’s capability to seize the strategic heights” in BW (Kania & Vorndick Defense One August 2019)

The SARS Episode of November 2002 constitutes a testimony to the lack of transparency and raised suspicion of state involvement. The lesson to be learned was the need for unambiguity and information sharing where infectious diseases were concerned. This did not seem to be the case in the recent outbreak of COVID-19; an examination of the chronology will suggest that while China formally intimated the WHO of the outbreak on 31 Dec 2019, the first cases reported by the late Dr Li Winliang (a “casualty” himself) were on 01 December (or were they earlier?)

Circumstantial evidence suggesting China’s involvement in release (inadvertently?) of the COVID-19 virus is mounting. In March 2019, under mysterious circumstances a shipment of exceptionally virulent microorganisms (Ebola, Coronavirus, SARS etc.) from Canada’s National Microbiology Laboratory (NML) found their way to Wuhan. The event triggered a major scandal questioning how the lethal viruses were transferred to China. Following investigation, the incident was traced to Chinese operatives working at NML It led to their expulson.

The Group comprising Dr Qiu, Dr Cheng and a host of intermediaries had direct links with several BW civil-military fusion laboratories in China which included the Institute of Military Veterinary Sciences, Academy of Military Medical Sciences, Changchun Centre for Disease Control, the Wuhan Institute of Virology and the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Hubei. While the nature of  Dr. Qiu’s research is not entirely known, what is alleged is that it was vital for the Chinese BW development particularly in weaponizing Coronavirus, Ebola, Nipah and Rift Valley fever viruses. The investigation is on-going and even suggests that earlier ‘artful’ shipments to China of other viruses took place from 2006 to 2018. Incidentally, the Wuhan Institute of Virology was held responsible for the leak of SARS virus in 2003 (Guizhen Wu). The SARS is an engineered synthesis of measles and mumps virus not found in nature (Sergei Kolesnikov Russian Academy of Medical Sciences).

Let us now examine the fatal relapse in China of the many who were considered cured and rid of  COVID-19. What if, it is in fact, a Chinese dual use BW research programme gone horrifically wrong? Reminiscent of the reported Soviet experiment with re-engineering pathogens within a pathogen (Hoffman); the first stage illness was carried by an innocuous fast spreading endemic microbe while the second pathogen would be genetic material that would cause the body to attack and breakdown its own vital systems.

In the midst of mutation theories of the pathogen from bats to pangolin to man and its probable leak in a bio-experiment; there are many not so convincing  allegations of cause and conspiracies with rumour mills working overtime and fake news clouding perceptions. What we do know is that COVID-19 originated in Wuhan from where it was inflicted on the world’s people. How, when and why remain unrequited questions. In this ambience it becomes increasingly important to closely monitor the Chinese military’s activities in BW. While it may be impractical to expect China to recompense for global disruption and mass casualties, what can be imposed is the demand for verifiable transparency in their BW programme and making their laboratories indubitably transparent.

The Chanciness of Squirming Back from the Brink

By

Vice Admiral (retd) Vijay Shankar

(The article may be accessed at http://ipcs.org/comm_select.php?articleNo=5647 in the IPCS web journal, where it was first published)

Stanislav Yefgrafovich Petrov, Colonel Second Rank of the Soviet Strategic Air Defence Forces, stood as watch in charge at the Oko nuclear early warning surveillance system at the Top Secret Serpukhov-15 complex in a South Moscow suburb. His duty was to monitor remote sensing data coming in from the “Molinya” satellite for early warning of ballistic missile launch from the  North Dakota plains, the location of Minuteman III ICBMs of USA’s 455 Strategic Missile Wing and should launch be detected targeting the USSR, to alert the Kremlin for release of a retaliatory strike. The process was rigid and beyond recall.  At civil twilight (US Central Time) on 25 September 1983, the system reported launch of multiple Minuteman missiles. Allowing for a flight of 25 minutes and decision making cum retaliation time of 20 minutes, Petrov had less than 5 minutes to sound the alarm and set in motion the chain of a possible nuclear holocaust. There was neither time for a re-check nor the luxury of second source validation. Given the gravity and tensions intrinsic to the situation, it must have taken enormous fortitude to make the judgement that he did. Petrov classified the six sequential ‘missile attack warnings’ as false alarms even though he had no authority to do so. This decision prevented a possible retaliatory nuclear attack and escalation to full-scale nuclear war. Investigation of the Molniya system later determined that it had malfunctioned.

The Stanislav episode occurred amidst three seemingly unrelated geo-political events that sent the Soviet Union and the USA hurtling to the brink of a nuclear war. Firstly, the deployment of US Pershing II IRBMs in Europe in the autumn of ‘83 heightened fears in the Kremlin of an accelerated (6 minutes) decapitation nuclear strike, drumming hysteria of imminent war. It was briskly followed by NATO war manoeuvres “Able Archer ‘83” intended to validate concepts for transition from conventional to strategic nuclear war. Sandwiched between these two events was the shoot down of Korean Airlines 007 on 01 September in Soviet air space, the run-up to which was marred by tensions caused by three US Carrier Battle Groups aggressively patrolling the North West Pacific. The background noise of Reagan’s Strategic Defence Initiative stoked a distressing strategic restlessness. Stanislav was an exceptional symptom of what went fortuitously right despite the paranoia that pervaded super-power relations.

The sub-continental nuclear context hardly echoes the scenario of 1983; however when enquiring into relations between nuclear armed states there are three points which bear notice. First,   a high operational state of military alert in a strategic fog of mistrust tends to generate a combative stimulus that places weaponry on a hair-trigger. While this may be unavoidable in the case of conventional ordnance, it must be sworn-off when it comes to the nuclear arsenal; the fact that it took one ‘sane’ man, ironically not in the chain of command to avert a nuclear holocaust is a chilling reminder of the hazards of a hair-trigger. Second, states possessing nuclear weapons, are faced with an awkward paradox; that of vulnerability of both weapon-systems and their Command and Control and therefore the continuous infusion of technology. With tactical nuclear weapons, there is strong motivation to counter vulnerability by sub-delegation of release authority; enhancing the likelihood of an unintended nuclear exchange. Third, the probability of a successful decapitating nuclear first strike is not only low on account of redundancies in the target state, but also ill founded in its premise that it can annihilate leadership all together. These considerations are a vexing part of the sub-continental milieu.

Contemporary nuclear politics is also under stress for the want of, stability in Pakistan’s body polity, clarity in command and control of the nuclear arsenal and unambiguity in doctrinal underpinnings. These must be unwavering and transparent. Inconsistencies of any nature will result in unpredictability and increase the temptation to take pre-emptive action. Even in a crisis, conventional or sub-conventional, the propensity to ‘reach-for-the-nuclear-trigger’ must be abhorred: at the same time recognition of having arrived at a threshold, must be conceded. Against this backdrop, no attempt has been made to reconcile the predicament caused by intrusion of technology into the nuclear calculus and its impact on the arsenal as it compresses readiness and enhances lethality. From this standpoint or from any, the significance of a policy of No First Use remains irrefutable.

No meaningful scrutiny of the sub-continental nuclear situation can avoid looking at either the tri-polar nature of the playing field or internals of Pakistan. China has provided intellectual, material, technological and motivation for the Pakistan nuclear programme. Its purpose is singular; to keep Indo-Pak nuclear relations on the boil despite the internals of Pakistan exposing the use of terror organizations as instruments of their misshapen military policies in Kashmir and Afghanistan. The fear that elements of their arsenal could fall into extremist hands is real. State involvement in terror activities such as their damnable hand in the 26/11 Mumbai assault, sanctuary provided to Osama Bin Laden and AQ Khan’s proliferation networks remain alive and inspires little confidence of Pakistan’s intent.

The iconic Doomsday Clock has ticked its way to 100 seconds to midnight – the closest to disaster it has ever been in its 73-year history. It signals that the world faces an unprecedentedly high risk of nuclear catastrophe caused not only by the dismal state of global nuclear relations and uncontrolled proliferation but also by the menacing presence of jihadists. Military collaboration with a potential adversary is not a concept that comes naturally. Nonetheless it is nobody’s case to argue that political objectives can be subsumed to military destruction and when nuclear armed, destruction would be of the very purpose of polity.

We stand today on the cusp of an extremely dodgy situation, in part caused by reluctance to control the manner in which technology and political events are driving nuclear arsenals. Knee-jerk politicking of the moment shapes the arsenal of the future while barriers to a nuclear exchange are lowered and political will to prohibit nuclear war erodes. This is the predicament that is faced by nuclear planners. There does not appear to be any other answer than to readjust postures and re-tool doctrines with the aim of holding back on nuclear weapons as primary instruments of military strategy; we can hardly expect a Stanislav Petrov to make his appearance on-call.