The Military Weakness Exposed by the Coronavirus
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Ships and submarines are vulnerable to the spread of COVID-19.
By David Keohane, Helen Warrell and Michael Peel
A third of the crew on France’s flagship aircraft carrier have tested positive for coronavirus, underscoring how military forces face particular vulnerabilities during the pandemic that could potentially be exploited by rival powers.
The 668 cases diagnosed among 2,000 sailors on the French navy’s nuclear-powered Charles de Gaulle and its accompanying frigate exceed the 615 announced cases on the U.S. Navy ship Theodore Roosevelt.
The outbreak on the U.S. carrier sparked a crisis in which the vessel’s captain, Brett Crozier, was removed after he asked for help to contain the outbreak and Navy Secretary Thomas Modly was fired over his subsequent handling of the affair.
The outbreaks on the two carriers highlight a dilemma for militaries as they seek to mitigate the COVID-19 threat without undermining their operational effectiveness, analysts say. The Charles de Gaulle played a high-profile role this year in deterring Russian activity in the Mediterranean and North Atlantic.
This could clearly disrupt readiness cycles.
Sidharth Kaushal, research fellow, Royal United Services Institute
Sidharth Kaushal, a research fellow in sea power at the London-based Royal United Services Institute, warns it is impossible to eliminate risk on naval vessels with cramped living quarters in which social distancing is impossible.
“The U.S. Navy has restricted sailors’ activities during port calls and, in the medium to long term, they are looking at scaling down deployments such as the Rim of the Pacific exercise later this year, so this could clearly disrupt readiness cycles,” Kaushal says.
Jens Stoltenberg, NATO secretary-general, warns that during the pandemic, potential adversaries could “look to exploit the situation” to further their own interests.
“Terrorist groups could be emboldened, the security situation in Afghanistan and Iraq remains fragile and we see a continued pace of Russian military activity,” Stoltenberg says. But he insists that the 30-member alliance’s operational readiness was “undiminished” despite the necessary COVID-19 precautions. Florence Parly, France’s defense minister, said on April 10 that 5,000 armed forces personnel had been, or were suspected of being, infected with the virus. “Does COVID-19 change our plans and our operations, yes, sometimes. But does it deflect us from our goals? No,” she added.
However, at least two French naval missions have been canceled due to the virus — one to the Black Sea and another to the Gulf of Guinea.
The Charles de Gaulle outbreak has left 31 sailors in hospitalized, with one in intensive care. The rest of the crew is in isolation in and around the Toulon military base. The number of cases is likely to climb as testing continues.
The French navy said on Thursday that when COVID-19 symptoms appeared on board earlier this month, those affected were isolated in the ship’s front section in a low-pressure area that prevented infected air leaking into surrounding areas.
The military has launched two investigations into the crisis as criticism mounts. One Charles de Gaulle crew member who has tested positive, speaking on French radio, accused the military of not acting quickly enough and playing “with our health, our lives.”
The French flagship joined warships from seven other NATO countries for an exercise in the North Sea between March 19 and 22, before being recalled to Toulon last week with approximately 50 coronavirus cases on board.
A NATO official says there was no face-to-face contact between crews from different ships during the exercise, nor any reported cases of infection aboard any of the other vessels.
The U.K. Defense Ministry said on Thursday that about 13,000 British military personnel were absent from the front line due to the coronavirus, either in isolation or caring for relatives. Fewer than 100 had been confirmed as infected, although it was not clear how many had been tested.
British military officials have said that plans are in place — including possible evacuations by boat and helicopter — to make sure the Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier was “free of virus” before its departure on a training mission in U.K. waters this month. The Royal Navy flagship’s planned deployment to the Pacific in spring 2021 is still set to go ahead despite concerns about how to safeguard the 1,100-strong crew from infection.
Meanwhile, Russia has quarantined two nuclear submarines from its Northern Fleet after fears that some of the crew had come into contact with a person suspected of carrying the virus. While one of the submarines — the cruise-missile-armed Smolensk — has been found to be free of coronavirus, the status of the second, the Orel, is unknown.
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