There are two U.S. aircraft carriers currently in the western Pacific and both now have reported cases of the new coronavirus among their crews.
Coronavirus cases have been found on USS Theodore Roosevelt and USS Ronald Reagan as well as a U.S. base in Japan.
Initially, eight sailors on the U.S. aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt tested positive for COVID-19 last week, the ship went to Guam, where the rest of the crew would be tested. The carrier had been conducting operations in the Philippine Sea and recently completed a high-profile port visit to Vietnam.
In a statement late last week, the chief of naval operations, Admiral Mike Gilday, said that “USS Theodore Roosevelt is in Guam on a previously-scheduled port visit. The resources at our naval medical facilities in Guam will allow us to more effectively test, isolate, and if necessary treat Sailors. We expect additional positive tests, and those Sailors who test positive will be transported to the U.S. Naval Hospital Guam for further evaluation and treatment as necessary. During the port visit, base access will be limited to the pier for Roosevelt’s Sailors. No base or regional personnel will access the pier.” He later expressed confidence that the Navy’s measures would ensure that the ship would still be able to respond to any crisis in the region.
Over the weekend FOX News confirmed that there are at least 38 infected sailors on the Roosevelt and Navy officials told CNN that possibly dozens more were expected to test positive for the virus.
Two sailors on the USS Ronald Reagan tested positive for COVID-19 last week as well. Because the ship was in port in Yokosuka, Japan, the base has also taken steps to contain a possible outbreak. All nonessential activity on the base was closed over the weekend and residents were ordered to remain in their homes except to get food. The Navy will evaluate this week whether those measures need to be extended or new ones put in place.
It’s unclear what impacts the COVID-19 cases may have on Reagan’s readiness. The ship is presently in port undergoing maintenance. It is, however, still a worrying development that could leave the Navy with no forward-deployed carriers in the Pacific region. Together, Roosevelt and Reagan also represent a fifth of the Navy’s Nimitz class ships, the Navy’s only truly operational supercarriers.
The close living and working arrangements on ships can make them highly susceptible to the spreading of illness. In 2002, more than 300 crew on the Roosevelt contracted the flu during an exercise in the Atlantic Ocean.
If the crews of both Roosevelt and Reagan find themselves incapacitated due to COVID-19, it could have major impacts on the near-term ability of the U.S. military to project power in the Pacific region during a crisis.
The U.S. military as a whole may be heading toward a concerning drop in readiness, too. The 1918 influenza pandemic had similarly significant impacts on the Navy, as well as the Marines and the rest of the U.S. armed forces. That virus killed more American service members than had died in the fighting in World War I.