(CNSNews.com) – Top military leaders gave assurances on Thursday that, despite the coronavirus pandemic and its effect on assets like the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt, overall force readiness levels have not dropped.
Despite “pockets” of COVID-19 infections, “readiness of the force in aggregate has not dropped as we’ve gone through this,” Air Force Gen. John Hyten, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in a briefing.
“As we sit here right now readiness is full-up, ready to go. We have to watch that and make sure, we have a lot of tools to make sure that we preserve our readiness and we’ll use them if we have to. But right now we’re actually in pretty good shape, given the nature of the crisis that we’re in.”
Hyten conceded that due to the situation on the Roosevelt there was “ a degradation there in the Pacific, so we have to watch that very closely.”
But, asked how the military will mitigate a potential gap in force projection around the world, he offered some perspective.
“One carrier, as mighty as that carrier is and as amazing as that carrier is, it’s a small fraction of the combat power that the United States brings to a puzzle,” Hyten said. “We have a joint force – Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines – that we can bring to bear on any problem.”
“So if we have a challenge with a carrier, we have long-range strike, we have bomber capabilities, we have a number of different capabilities that can back that carrier up. We use the entire joint force to make sure that we’re ready at all times.”
The nuclear-powered Roosevelt arrived in Guam for a scheduled port visit on March 27. It remains there, with around 1,000 of its almost 5,000 complement on the vessel and the rest housed in hotels and other accommodation on the island, in line with 14-day quarantine recommendations.
A total of 416 crew members are confirmed as having COVID-19, 3,190 have tested negative, with another 1,164 test results pending. One sailor, who had been in 14-day quarantine, was hospitalized at the U.S. Naval Hospital in the U.S. territory on Thursday, and is in intensive care.
The carrier’s commander, Captain Brett Crozier, was fired for a chain-of-command breach after widely distributing a letter urging faster action by the Navy to safeguard his crew. After firing him, acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly flew to Guam to address the crew, stoking fresh controversy with criticisms of Crozier. Modly resigned on Tuesday.
At the same Pentagon briefing Thursday, deputy secretary of defense David Norquist said the carrier had made port in Guam out of an abundance of caution.
“If that ship had been heading into combat it’s fully capable of performing its mission. If there was a need for it to deploy right away it would be able to do so,” he said. “Even in a case as dramatic as this one, if there was a conflict that ship was capable of going into the fight.”
Norquist also cautioned, “If our adversaries think this is our moment of weakness, they are dangerously wrong.”
Of the 416 Roosevelt crew members with COVID-19 infections, 187 have symptoms and 229 are asymptomatic, Hyten said. The Navy’s population tends to be a young, healthy one.
Still, Hyten said adjustments were being made in the light of the pandemic.
“This will be a new way of doing business that we have to focus in on,” he said. “We’re adjusting to that new world as we speak today.”
“It’s not a good idea to think that the Teddy Roosevelt is a one-of-a-kind issue. We have too many ships at sea, we have too many deployed capabilities,” he said. “To think that it will never happen again is not a good way to plan.”
“What we have to do is we have to figure out how to plan for operations in these kind of COVID environments.”
Hyten confirmed that the carrier USS Nimitz, docked in Bremerton, Wash. in preparation for a Pacific deployment, has reported a small number of COVID-19 cases, “and we’re watching that very closely before the Nimitz goes out.”
A 3rd Fleet spokesperson was quoted as saying one sailor who tested inconclusive but was presumed positive had been isolated off the Nimitz, while another had tested positive in early March while being on leave out of state, and had not returned to the vessel.
Before the Roosevelt made port in Guam it and its strike group conducted joint exercises in the South China Sea, long a theater of tensions over Chinese territorial claims and militarization of disputed areas.
Last week the People’s Liberation Army Navy announced that it, too, had carried out conducted combat-oriented drills, with surface vessels, submarines and fighter jets, in the South China Sea in late March.
Reacting to earlier assurances by U.S. officials of military readiness despite the pandemic, the Communist Party-affiliated Global Times cited Chinese military experts as decrying “an outdated Cold War mentality” and saying the U.S. faces no threat of war.