More than 1,200 U.S. military personnel and their family members are affected by coronavirus, leaving the Defense Department virtually at war with itself over two competing instincts: protecting troops from the virus and continuing its decades-old mission of patrolling the globe and engaging in combat, if ordered to do so.
The Navy is thus far refusing to completely evacuate an aircraft carrier where 93 service members have been confirmed to be infected with the coronavirus. Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper has put himself on the side of business as usual in maintaining readiness while also saying that force protection is a top priority. President Trump, for his part, threatened a familiar foe, tweeting on Wednesday that Iran would “pay a very heavy price” if its proxies attacked American troops or assets in Iraq. Other Defense Department officials continued to insist that the aircraft carrier, the Theodore Roosevelt, remain ready to carry out its missions.
The commander of the Roosevelt, Capt. Brett E. Crozier, pointed out in a strongly worded letter that “we are not at war.” That statement raised questions from the Pacific to the Pentagon of what was so important about the aircraft carrier’s presence off the coast of Guam that the Defense Department could not evacuate the ship and do a deep cleaning, as suggested by Captain Crozier.
U.S. warships typically spend months at sea monitoring the activities of adversaries. The ships assigned to the Pacific Fleet patrol the South China Sea, the East China Sea and areas in between, sometimes undertaking so-called freedom of navigation operations that bring them close to disputed islands in the area. The goal of these voyages is to drive home to China that the United States does not recognize Beijing’s claims of ownership.
American warships in the region are also keeping an eye on the nuclear and missile threat from North Korea. And they sit ready to deploy to the Arabian Sea and the Persian Gulf if tensions — with, say, Iran — flare up.
But for the moment, the virus has proved far more damaging than any recent encounters with traditional adversaries and exposed a vulnerability of a force often referred to as the world’s policeman. For all the focus on the battles in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen and the power conflict with China and Russia, none has come close to crippling an American aircraft carrier in days.
The Pentagon said on Wednesday it would send 540 additional troops to the Southwest border to counter any potential flow of migrants who are infected with the coronavirus.