Who said that internal Navy politics couldn’t make for good melodrama?
Last week, Acting Secretary of the Navy Thomas Modly took it upon himself to fire Captain Brett Crozier as the skipper of the aircraft carrier the U.S.S. Teddy Roosevelt. Crozier had circulated a letter asking that the ship, with many dozens of its 5,000 sailors already testing positive for coronavirus after a port visit in Vietnam, not continue on its scheduled deployment. The Navy apparently agreed with Crozier that the risks of turning the Roosevelt into a petri dish, in cruise-ship fashion, were not worth the benefits, and sent the ship to Guam instead, where most sailors were to disembark and self-quarantine for two weeks.
Still, Secretary Modly was not happy. He apparently viewed the alarmist nature of Crozier’s remarks, and the relatively wide circulation of his letter, as out of line — so much so that he traveled all the way to Guam to berate Crozier again, in front of his former crew. But many Navy officers, like former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Michael Mullen, have defended Crozier’s concern for his crew’s well-being. The crew itself gave Crozier a rousing round of applause as he disembarked the ship for the last time.
Modly may be right that Crozier’s words could have been better chosen, and more discreet. While Crozier was right to say that the United States is not at war (at least not in East Asia), we are constantly pushing back against Chinese assertiveness and deterring North Korea there. These missions remain essential, COVID-19 or not, and if more U.S. Navy ship crews are afflicted by the virus, the United States will need to take care in how it publicly explains any future changes to its overseas presence.
Yet there is little doubt that Captain Crozier was more right than wrong. Taking care of the crew mattered more than hewing slavishly to a preset ship deployment schedule. Lest any American adversaries get the wrong idea today, it is important to explain why.
Modly’s tirade at Guam ironically risks creating the impression that in fact this temporary port call for the Roosevelt damages U.S. deterrent capabilities more than it really does. As such, despite my personal appreciation for much of what Modly has done during his tenure with the Navy (and as he outlined in a public event we held together at Brookings this past winter), I think there was no choice for the Trump administration but to accept his resignation.
But back to the broader strategic questions at hand:
- The United States already had three other aircraft carriers in forward waters, in addition to the Roosevelt — two near the Persian Gulf and one in Japan. This is above average. Although today’s U.S. Navy has 10 deployable large-deck aircraft carriers (each carrying about 75 aircraft, and escorted by several other ships in any carrier battle group), only two or three are typically on station. Much of an aircraft carrier’s life cycle is spent forming up crews, conducting training, working up to sea trials, transiting oceans, and then after a deployment carrying out recovery and maintenance tasks. Indeed, according to the U.S. Naval Institute, the average carrier group has been deployed less than 25% of the time since 2013 or so. Standing the Roosevelt down — while it is, in fact, still in Guam, not far away from any western Pacific emergency that might develop — thus detracts little from our broader global posture.
- The Navy probably already spends too much of its time, effort, and resources maintaining a fixed deployment schedule. After all, if we ever needed to use force in a given crisis, we would likely want to create a small armada of two or more carriers in any case. Arguably, surge potential matters more than continuous presence. For example, during the North Korea crisis of 2017, the Trump administration directed three carrier battle groups to head towards Northeast Asia at once — and made sure the word got out that we were doing so. Concentrating firepower sent a more powerful message than keeping up a predictable, smaller presence.
- When he was Secretary of Defense, Jim Mattis made this same point in broader terms. The 2018 National Defense Strategy asserted that the United States should be “strategically predictable but operationally unpredictable.” Mattis accordingly redirected a carrier battle group headed for the Persian Gulf to the Baltic Sea instead — giving Vladimir Putin and his top officials something to ponder. Meanwhile, land-based American airpower in the broader Gulf region was counted on to sustain deterrence in that region.
- The Navy is only one instrument of American military power — and, like cruise ships, its assets and people are more vulnerable to COVID-19 outbreaks than other services, given the close quarters prevalent on warships. Soldiers and airmen/airwomen in places like Korea, Japan, Qatar, and Kuwait can fight tonight as well, even if they scale back some types of training in coming months in light of the coronavirus. Even at its very worst, COVID-19 is unlikely to afflict more than 5-10% of the main combat power of the United States at a time. The American armed forces are built to operate with that level of attrition if need be.
Secretary Modly badly overreacted, and unfortunately needed to resign. It is now time to calm this whole thing down — and to look for another important job in the Navy for Captain Crozier, who on balance did his job well. But we also need to clearly articulate, to friend and foe alike, that the American armed forces remain ready, and active globally, even in these difficult times.