Photo: NICHOLAS V. HUYNH / Navy Office Of Information/AFP Via Getty Images
On Tuesday, acting Navy secretary Thomas Modly resigned, attempting to end the uproar over a coronavirus outbreak on the USS Theodore Roosevelt and the dismissal last week of its commander, Navy Capt. Brett Crozier.
But significant questions remain about what led to the crisis – specifically, the decision to proceed with a March 5 “port call” in Vietnam.
Last week, President Donald Trump criticized the port call, saying, “Perhaps you don’t do that in the middle of a pandemic.” Of course, it’s impossible to be certain that the Roosevelt’s port call led to the spread of the virus onboard the ship. But while in Port Danang, an estimated 4,500 sailors disembarked to meet with “the people of Vietnam through tours, professional exchanges, and community relations events” – activities that could spread the virus.
Why did the Navy decide to go ahead with the port call in Vietnam, which had confirmed the presence of the coronavirus? Here’s what we know:
1. A Vietnam “presence mission” trumped pandemic concerns
The U.S. government considers port calls essential to the Navy’s “presence missions.” By visibly deploying Navy ships to foreign ports and Freedom of Navigation Operations, the government hopes to signal a strong commitment to a “free and open Pacific.”
Both the Defense Department and the State Department saw the Roosevelt’s port call in Danang as a strategic way to strengthen its relationship with Vietnam at a time when U.S. influence in the Philippines might be in decline. And China’s recent military activity has increased in the Spratly Islands, territory claimed by both China and Vietnam. The port call also signaled the importance of the Navy’s carrier fleet in maintaining U.S. influence in Asia, at a moment when budgetary support for ships is in decline.
But military analysts and political scientists also consider port calls “cheap talk,” a symbolic use of force. There is little evidence that U.S. “presence missions” are effective deterrents against aggression or serve as meaningful signals of resolve. And whatever deterrent value was gained from the March stop in Danang, much more might be lost in “military readiness” from the spread of the virus.
2. Even during a pandemic, there were pressures to conduct “business as usual.”
If the port call brought limited strategic gains, why did leaders go forward? Three reasons might explain the decision to disembark at Danang.
First, when faced with uncertainty, militaries tend to adhere to standard operating procedures, the rules already in place to guide operations. The Roosevelt’s port call was timed to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the normalization of diplomatic relations between the United States and Vietnam. Planning involved the Pentagon and the State Department. Leaders would be loath to depart from these complex operations.
Second, leaders probably worried that canceling the port call could damage relations with Vietnam. Approval for the aircraft carrier’s visit required a consensus among Vietnam’s 19-member Politburo. Vietnamese officials had reported that there were only 16 coronavirus cases in the country, all well north of the port. Keeping the port call on the roster signaled U.S. officials’ trust in their Vietnamese counterparts.
Canceling the port call would also be an economic loss for Vietnam and cause potential damage to the bilateral relationship. Port calls often bring in millions of dollars to the host country, as sailors disembark and support the local economy.
A third factor may have been morale on the Roosevelt. Port visits – perhaps once a month – are one of the few bright spots for sailors deployed at sea for eight or nine months. Seven days a week, sailors work eight- to 10-hour shifts fixing engines and computers, tracking aircraft and ships, or making meals. After about 30 days at sea, an aircraft carrier will pull into port for four days. Of those four days, a sailor is free for three. The loss of a port visit and another 30 days at sea without respite can be tough on a ship’s crew.
3.This was U.S.-Indo Pacific Command’s decision, not Crozier’s.
Although Trump criticized Crozier for going ahead with the port call, that’s a decision outside the scope of an aircraft commander’s authority. As the USS Theodore Roosevelt’s commander, Crozier was responsible for the internal functions of the aircraft carrier. His task was to oversee the operations of the ship and be accountable for the performance of both ship and crew.
Authority to cancel the port call lay with U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, in consultation with the Pentagon and the State Department, which helped coordinate the visit. The commander of Indo-Pacific Command, Adm. Phil Davidson, decides where naval assets are deployed. If there was information that a port call would threaten the crew of an aircraft carrier, Indo-Pacific Command had the authority to either keep sailors on the ship when it docked or cancel the port call entirely.
The coronavirus timeline suggests Indo-Pacific Command had both the time and the information needed to change course. At the end of January, shortly after the Roosevelt left its San Diego home port, the World Health Organization declared a global public health emergency. On Feb. 14, well before the carrier arrived in Vietnam, the Navy ordered all ships in the Indo-Pacific region that had made port calls to quarantine at sea for at least 14 days.
The USS Roosevelt crisis comes on the heels of several events that have raised concerns about leadership command in the Pacific. The “Fat Leonard” scandal uncovered systemic corruption within the Pacific Fleet. Investigations last year into two separate collisions in 2017, the USS John S. McCain and the USS Fitzgerald, revealed that commanders had failed to train and equip surface combatants properly, as the Navy attempted to maintain an unsustainable operations tempo.
All of this suggests that the March port call in Vietnam was a symptom of a more dangerous ailment. When the Navy finishes its coronavirus fight, it faces a raft of decision-making dysfunctions beyond this current pandemic.
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Goddard is professor of political science at Wellesley College and a nonresident fellow of the Quincy Institute. She is the author of When Right Makes Might: Rising Powers and World Order (Cornell University Press, 2018).
ameron is a retired navy captain who served most of his career in the Pacific and served as Director of Operations in the White House Military Office during 9/11.
MacConaghy is a law student at the University of Virginia and former naval intelligence officer who served aboard an aircraft carrier and as a member of the Chief of Naval Operations and Secretary of the Navy’s briefing staff.
For other commentaries by political scientists from universities around the country, see www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/monkey-cage