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 Coronavirus 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 a 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 what he calls the “Wuhan Virus”… after all as reports suggest were the Presidents courtiers all too blind to the realities of command of an aircraft carrier.

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.

 

South Asia: Post Crisis Brief (Balakot)

Published by:

The Nuclear Crisis Group

Read the entire brief here: https://www.globalzero.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/06/South-Asia-Post-Crisis-Brief.pdf

Contributors to the dossier: Vice Admiral (ret.) Vijay Shankar, General (ret.) Jehangir Karamat, Dr. Manpreet Sethi, Sadia Tasleem,  Dr. Toby Dalton, and Dr. Vipin Narang.

Balakot: the Strike Across the Line

by

Vice Admiral (Ret.) Vijay Shankar

A former Chief Minister of the Indian State of Jammu and Kashmir in the immediate wake of the February 26, 2019 Balakot strike by the Indian Airforce remarked: “Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) hit Indian forces and claimed the attack. In turn, Indian forces hit JeM and owned that air strike.” The problem with this credulous statement, on the one hand, is that it persists in viewing a string of terrorist acts as one-offs; and on the other hand, it fails to discern the victim from the villain.

In distinguishing between victim of an act of terror and the terrorist, United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) Resolution 51/210 of 1996 makes clear what defines the act: “Criminal acts intended or calculated to provoke a state of terror in the general public, a group of persons or particular persons for political purposes are in any circumstance unjustifiable, whatever the considerations of political, philosophical, ideological, racial, ethnic, religious or other nature that may be invoked to justify them.” Furthermore, the UN Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy of 2006 enjoins member states “to refrain from organizing, instigating, facilitating, participating in, financing, encouraging or tolerating terrorist activities and to take…measures to ensure that…respective territories are not used for terrorist installations or training camps, or for the preparation or organization of terrorist acts intended to be committed against other States or their citizens.” The right to respond, pre-emptive or reactive, to an act of terror is enshrined in the same document.

Additionally, the Pulwama terror attack of February 14 being perceived as a ‘one-off’ is far more hazardous as it distorts any concept of response while at the same time skewing mass perception of the character of that act of terror. The Pulwama vehicular bombing must be seen as one of a series of terror attacks beginning with the assault on the Indian Parliament in December 2001, the atrocity of killing soldier’s families at Kaluchak in 2002, the terror attacks on Mumbai in 2008, the strikes on Pathankot and Uri in 2016 and now Pulwama. Incidentally, all these attacks were (as evidence indicates) planned in coordination with Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and executed by the Pakistan-based internationally outlawed terror outfit, the JeM. Restraint-in-response, which characterized the Indian military rejoinder prior to the Uri terror assault, has been replaced by cross-Line of Control (LoC) punitive strikes that were undertaken to move on the offensive, surgically hit designated terror targets, and return to base; all with speed and precision. Retribution for Pulwama was delivered by airpower that blinded and then sliced through Pakistan air defenses to deliver their precision payloads deep in Pakistani territory to the terror infrastructure of the JeM at Balakot where over
300 new jihadi recruits reportedly were undergoing fidayeen training in preparation for attacks in India.  For Pakistan, the awkward reality was that its two major benefactors, China and Saudi Arabia, did not back it. Was this another nail in the coffin for the Pakistani strategy of nurturing Islamist terror groups and militants as instruments to bleed India? Is the myth of waging unconventional warfare against the Indian State with impunity under the umbrella of nuclear weapons now standing on thin ice?

The following day, the Pakistan Air Force mounted a retaliatory air strike, which was thwarted by Indian air defences. It was not clear what the Pakistani targets were since they were unable to either strike any installations or penetrate defenses. In the skirmish, one Indian Mig-21 was shot down and its pilot captured while the Indian Air Force claimed downing a Pakistani F-16. It is hypothetical to speculate what the Indian reaction may have been had the Pakistani force package reached their targets. Within 48 hours, the captured Indian pilot was returned. It is possible this act served to defuse the situation but it is not clear whether the return was achieved through internal decision-making or external pressure.

It may be premature to analyze the lessons to be learned from the Balakot air strikes, particularly at the tactical or the operational level as there would be many. However, a macro evaluation suggests four salient takeaways:

First, there has been a strategic revisit of the Indian policy of restraint-in-response to terror attacks on India or its assets anywhere (remember the attack on the Indian consulate at Mazar-i-Sharif in 2016) by the JeM or any other Pakistan-sponsored jihadi groups. Hitherto, thinking at the highest levels of India’s political leadership was influenced by the probability that any major trans-LoC strike using airpower would be deemed escalatory. Post-Balakot, the Indian military is less likely to be constrained by the Line or the border in conducting retaliatory precision strikes on non-military terror-related targets as long as it is clear that the Pakistan State is doctrinally, logistically, and materially behind these terror strikes.

Second, India is focused on targeting jihadi terror infrastructure. The dismantlement of those targets by Pakistan or by other means provides the first mechanism for negotiations between Delhi and Islamabad.

Third, the impact on other regional states and major international players not only set up a favourable environ for the furtherance of the campaign against terror but likewise energized Pakistan’s immediate neighbours, who are also victims of state-sponsored terror, to take similar offensive action.

Four, the growing precision and briskness of intelligence—whether human, electronic, cyber, space-based, or through interstate cooperation—has enhanced the ability to plan and conduct surgical strikes against terror targets.

Addressing the issue of how best to manage a future occurrence begins with the understanding that India’s pacific tolerance to terror attacks sponsored by Pakistan and emanating from their territory is not unlimited and will be rejoined by reactive or pre-emptive military action which may not be geographically restricted to Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. In this perspective, that the Pakistan Army have backed jihadist groups and shielded wanted terrorists like Hafiz Sayyed, Dawood Ibrahim, and Masood Azar are well recognised facts. The real problem is that this duplicity, notoriously dubbed the strategy of a “thousand cuts,” is part of the Pakistani establishment’s policy. To dismantle the terror infrastructure in Pakistan that target India, and to bring to book jihadi terror groups, such as JeM or Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), would greatly serve the interest of averting the prospects of recurrence. In the long term, there is no getting away from the pressing need for civil control of the Pakistan deep state (ISI-military combine).

On the issue of the absence of escalation, two considerations may have played a part. First, the nature of the air strikes were designated by the Indian Government as “pre-emptive” air strikes directed against non-military terror infrastructure. The strikes were limited in scope, intensity, and time. Second, the terror averse international environment and the persuasive powers of the United States and Saudi Arabia appear to have been at play. Both states hold Pakistan’s economic jugular at a time when the Pakistani economy is in a quagmire. The reluctance of China either to support Pakistan or to get involved must have been a dampener to any thought by Pakistan to further escalate. From the nuclear stand point, there was neither rhetoric nor any reported attempt to reach for the trigger by either side. This may be an indication of a developing balance and perspicacity as to where nuclear thresholds lie on both sides.

The Balakot air strikes are far too recent for all verified facts to have emerged and, therefore, to stitch together an exhaustive analysis may not be a practical proposition currently. Yet the significance of the incident is very apparent, for it revolves around one notable condition of the international milieu: how long can the global community endure the presence of a state that nurtures and sponsors terrorism so much so that it is today considered the epicentre of global terrorism?