The USS Theodore Roosevelt conducts a training exercise in the Pacific in 2017. Photo: AFP / US Navy

In every calamity there are those momentous incidents that stand out to write their own histories amid the clutter of event logs. The story of the captain of the US Navy aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt being relieved of his command will remain a watershed event that will reverberate for many years in military institutions as a case study in command.

In this case the warship sailed out of San Diego Naval Base under Captain Brett Crozier along with its strike group on January 17 for deployment in the Western Pacific. A preventive medical unit was aboard one of the ships of the strike group accompanying the aircraft carrier, but it had no coronavirus detection kit.

On February 5, the USS Theodore Roosevelt reached Guam, and on February 27 it was at Danang, Vietnam. Sailors went out on liberty and were allowed back after checks for Covid-19 symptoms.

Theodore Roosevelt sailed out of Danang on March 9. The first sailor on the ship was detected as having the virus on March 22, and the number of cases increased to nine by March 25. The infected sailors were evacuated and the ship was ordered to return to Guam. The story of response to the crisis aboard the aircraft carrier begins here.

Military commanders need many qualities, especially while tenanting command appointments. They need to be thorough professionals while being hugely humane. They have to ensure a mission is successfully completed, at the minimum cost to life of the men they lead.

As officers climb the ladder to flag ranks, they have also to ensure they don’t become bullies, don’t lose the feel of the deck – in this case, the pressures that captains of ships tend to face; don’t get politicized, especially at the cost of their commands.

No one will blame Captain Crozier for valuing the life of his sailors. But the question remains: Could he have evacuated the limited number of people who later tested positive for the virus without sacrificing the mission readiness of Theodore Roosevelt? Did he over-react? Did the complexity of the problem prove too heavy for him to think rationally?

At all levels of military command, the requirement is to navigate through ambiguity, amorphous situations that mutate at a pace far more rapid than a coronavirus. It’s a testing arena, a tough ride, and commanders have to retain a grip on the problem, while holding the reins with equanimity. Such cross-currents at sea are not rare, either. In fact, therein lie the acid tests of leadership.

If there is an issue that can in no way be overlooked it is that on March 30, Captain Crozier decided to communicate on e-mail a four-page letter asking for immediate evacuation of the crew, but for 10% to continue with essential tasks, over an unclassified communication channel. Further, the mail was sent to his superiors, as also other naval officers, the recipients being above 20 in all. Surely the captain knew it would reach some media establishment and lead to a huge focus globally on the issue and disclose Theodore Roosevelt’s state of operational readiness.

In fact, the previous day, on March 29, Rear Admiral Stuart Baker, commander of the strike group on board Theodore Roosevelt, Admiral John Aquilino, commander of the Pacific Fleet, and Captain Crozier had disagreed on the mitigation plan. Both admirals were in favor of limited measures to avoid the aircraft carrier being out of action and jeopardizing its mission. Crozier had insisted on evacuating all but 10% of the crew.

Crozier also spoke with the chief of staff to the acting secretary of the navy, Thomas B Modly, on the day he mailed his memo. He did not inform him of his intentions. Apparently, the captain’s loss of confidence in the chain of command went right up to the top.

The other issue that comes up is whether or not the two admirals were influenced more by the fact that US President Donald Trump’s administration was dealing with the Covid-19 issue relatively lightly, casting its shadow on the problem on board the ship. Apparently not; Trump had declared a national emergency on March 13 in order to “unleash the full power of the federal government.” That’s long before the e-mail was sent by Crozier. Trump had shed his initial reluctance, switched from a trot to a canter, if not a gallop, with the US already reporting 1,701 cases and 50 deaths. Surely, no admiral worth his salt would be thinking of slow pedaling at the risk of sailors’ lives.

However, two flag officers unable to convince the captain of a ship is distressing as such. Every officer in the forces is first and foremost a leader, trainer and a counselor. The fact that Aquilino and Baker, admirals both, were unable to guide the captain to options they thought were right, if experienced more often, would be alarming.

Crozier was relieved of his command on April 2. However, the storm was destined to gather yet more momentum. On March 6, Modly addressed the crew on the decks of Theodore Roosevelt and used words that bordered on “profanity” – as he was to admit later – to describe Crozier. Modly was to resign as acting secretary of the navy the next day.

As of now, on the line is Captain Crozier, facing an inquiry. He has also tested positive for Covid-19. President Trump is on record as saying, “I don’t want to destroy somebody for having a bad day.”

There’s a fairly long road ahead. Both the command environment and this issue in particular will undergo detailed examination. Surely, US Navy will ensure a fair deal for all.

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S K Chatterji

Brigadier S K Chatterji (Retired) served in the Regiment of Artillery of the Indian Army and is a prolific writer.