‘Mission endures’ for Task Force 70 ships amid coronavirus pandemic, commanders say
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YOKOSUKA NAVAL BASE, Japan — Even amid a worldwide shutdown as the coronavirus ravages the globe, national security “doesn’t stop for a global pandemic,” USS Ronald Reagan commander Capt. Pat Hannifin said in a recent interview with Stars and Stripes.
As the Navy’s only aircraft carrier stationed outside the United States, the Reagan has a responsibility to keep the peace and protect its allies and partners in the region, Hannifin said Friday. The carrier and its strike group typically patrol the western Pacific from late spring through early winter, undergoing regular maintenance in the interim.
But as they gear up for another deployment to the Indo-Pacific, Navy commanders must also ensure the illness that sidelined another aircraft carrier in the region last month doesn’t come aboard the Reagan or the ships of its strike group.
Several Reagan sailors have already tested positive for the coronavirus. Officials have not publicly disclosed how many, but a New York Times report April 22 said there were 16 positive cases associated with the carrier.
Hannifin and Task Force 70 commander Rear Adm. George Wikoff spoke with Stars and Stripes about the precautions being taken and continuing responsibilities of the Reagan and its strike group in a joint phone interview Friday.
“Americans everywhere are facing adversity in their own ways right now and while that is happening, they count on us to stand the watch,” Hannifin said.
In the past six weeks, China has sent a carrier strike group through the Miyako Strait near Okinawa, sank a Vietnamese fishing vessel in the South China Sea, deployed maritime militias around the contested Spratly Islands and established new “research stations” there on the disputed Fiery Cross and Subi reefs, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement Thursday.
“Even as we fight the outbreak, we must remember that the long-term threats to our shared security have not disappeared,” he said. “In fact, they’ve become more prominent. Beijing has moved to take advantage of the distraction.”
The amphibious assault ship USS America and its expeditionary strike group are patrolling the South China Sea, but no U.S. carrier has steamed the western Pacific since the coronavirus sidelined the USS Theodore Roosevelt in March. Since then, nearly a fourth of the carrier’s 4,000-member crew has tested positive for the virus, and one has died.
“Our mission is to provide that lethal combat force to the nation with no caveats for difficult times or for difficult challenges or circumstances and that is exactly what we’re doing,” Hannifin said. “We’re taking the precautions necessary to prevent [the coronavirus] and mitigate the effects of that on board Reagan.”
The unprecedented event has posed a unique challenge to the strike group, Wikoff said. He overses the Reagan strike group and Task Force 70, which is the battle arm of the 7th Fleet.
“A cookie-cutter ‘here’s what you do in case of this’ answer is not out there as we continue to learn about this virus,” he said.
Reagan crewmembers are sequestered and tested for the coronavirus before coming aboard the vessel, Wikoff said. Sailors are undergoing phased sequestration periods at Yokosuka, Naval Air Station Atsugi, Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni and Yokota Air Base, all in Japan. Once the sequestration periods are complete, the sailors are tested. If their results are negative, they move onto their respective ships.
Wikoff didn’t say how long the sequestration period was, but Navy guidance suggests a 21-day restriction of movement for a “99% ‘clean’ confidence level.”
“We will continue to learn and adjust accordingly, but the sailors’ health is always the first priority before we go to deployment,” he said. “I would not be taking a sailor underway on any of our ships if I was concerned about the health of the crew.”
Wikoff said his sailors are looking forward “to getting back out on that very important mission supporting our whole of government to provide a combat-credible option if our nation calls.”
“I think it means a lot not only to our sailors of our strike group but also to our nation as a whole and our partners and allies that we get Reagan back to sea and back out on deployment where she belongs,” he said.
When they deploy, the Reagan strike group will join other 7th Fleet ships that have been at sea since February, including the guided-missile cruiser USS Antietam and the guided-missile destroyers USS Mustin and USS McCampbell.
The destroyer USS Barry on Friday steamed through the 110-mile-wide Taiwan Strait, which China views as its territorial waters but the U.S. considers an international waterway.
Wikoff said he hopes returning the Reagan and its strike group to sea will send a message to U.S. allies and partners “that we are here with them to promote common interest.” Exactly when that will happen is unclear, as it is Navy policy not to discuss future ship movements.
“The world remains a competitive space and competition remains out there,” he said. “We will continue to fly, sail and operate as international law allows in this theater.”
“The mission endures,” he said.