The Virus and the Roosevelt: What’s Wrong With Our Bloody Ships?

“There seems to be something wrong with our bloody ships today,” said British Adm. David Beatty at the Battle of Jutland on May 31, 1916.

Beatty had just witnessed the HMS Queen Mary, a 32,000-ton Royal Navy battle cruiser, hit by German gunfire, explode and sink with the loss of 1,266 officers and sailors.

Lately, I can’t get Beatty’s legendary quip it out of my mind.

As an old Navy guy, I’ve followed the news of USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71) and its former captain, who was summarily relieved of command after sending an unclassified letter discussing the medical readiness of his crew.

From the outside looking in, we only know what has been reported, or selectively leaked to journalists with connections.

Personally, I subscribe to the adage that first accounts from front lines are usually wrong.

So we don’t know the whole story. But sometimes you know enough to recognize that things are seriously amiss.

Indeed, the Roosevelt is just the latest incident revealing what happens when a military service begins to devour itself after decades of political and institutional mismanagement.

Let’s drill down on this…

USS Roosevelt is an aircraft carrier currently deployed to the western Pacific Ocean.

USS Theodore Roosevelt

USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71) U.S. Navy photo.

In early March, Roosevelt made a port call in Vietnam. Port calls by carriers are not spontaneous. They’re arranged at high levels within both governments. The idea was to send a political-military message to the region, certainly to China.

After departing Vietnam, several Roosevelt crew members came down with coronavirus. Over a couple days, more and more crew showed symptoms. Coronavirus is highly contagious, and ships are tight spaces.

Roosevelt’s captain, Brett Crozier, sent messages through the chain of command, seeking assistance. From the outside, we don’t know what the reply was.

But eventually, the captain did something irregular, to put it mildly. He went outside his direct-report chain and sent a detailed four-page letter about the ship’s medical issues to over 20 recipients. Almost instantly, the letter leaked. It wound up on the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle.

As commanding officer (CO) of the vessel, Crozier was justified to send a letter about medical issues.

But after 28 years in the Navy, he should know — as anybody who has ever spent time in the Navy knows — it was improper to send the medical letter as an unclassified document through nonsecure channels to a long list of names outside of the command pipeline.

That’s because medical readiness on a deployed warship is as much a classified matter as the numbers of bombs and missiles in the magazine. It’s never grist for the front page of any newspaper.

So within two days, acting Secretary of the Navy Thomas Modly relieved Capt. Crozier of command.

The Roosevelt’s sailors, meanwhile, viewed their captain as a hero — a man who cared for their well-being. Indeed, as the fired CO departed the vessel in Guam, a thousand or so crewmen stood on the hangar deck (with no social distancing apparent) and cheered their support. A video of that scene went viral, if you’ll excuse the term in these quarantined times.

Navy Secretary Modly then flew to Guam, boarded Roosevelt and explained to the crew why he fired the captain. Among other things, the secretary said that the captain was “too naïve or too stupid to be a commanding officer of a ship like this.” The transcript of the secretary’s comments went public.

(There’s way more to this part of the story than I can relate here. Military.com offers a fuller account, including a link to the actual recording of Modly’s remarks. Click here.)

Thanks to the many leaks, the matter unfolded and moved though the news cycle. No less than President Trump was asked about the situation several times at his daily White House press briefings about the corona virus. The president said he’d look into it.

Not long after returning from Guam, Secretary Modly “resigned.”

This is an unmitigated mess. Many issues… Many angles… Much dirty Navy laundry.

Ordinarily, selecting captains of Navy ships is an internal, service-specific matter. There’s a process, and Navy people spend years moving through a well-defined training and selection system. At every step, there’s rigorous weeding, with stiff competition for the best jobs.

Only a few players — “hot runners,” we call them — end up commanding Navy ships. A very select few end up in the captain’s chair of a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier. No weak hands need apply.

Still, occasionally a Navy CO is relieved for one reason or another. If a ship hits a rock, let alone another ship, the CO is usually gone. Some COs have landed in hot water due to sexual dalliances, financial issues or drunk driving.

I once heard of a ship CO who was relieved of command after a poorly maintained cable snapped and seriously injured a sailor. When someone explained to the admiral who fired the CO that it was just a case of bad luck, the admiral replied, “I don’t want unlucky captains running my ships.”

But what are we to make of Crozier’s dismissal?

The captain of the Roosevelt had a medical issue burning through the ship — a rare enough event that there are no established protocols for it. Yet it seems unlikely that the best course of action was to send an unclassified letter that made its plight international news.

And beneath the surface of this story are far larger issues than that of a ship captain with sick sailors.

After decades of serial mismanagement, America’s Navy is filled out with many old, undermaintained — if not broken — ships. What we have is barely sufficient against today’s risks and challenges, let alone what we face in the near future.

I addressed the obsolescence of much of the Navy in a previous article. Among other things, I discussed new developments in hypersonic missiles, which can easily rip a carrier battle group to shreds. I wrote:

We have literally tens of billions of dollars of Navy-related capital investment — and many thousands of sailors on our ships — all at high risk. But now, the entire operational concept can be neutered by a few tens of millions of dollars’ worth of investment in missiles.

Or as Sergei Shoigu, defense minister of Russia, puts it, “We don’t need aircraft carriers. We just need weapons with which to sink them.”

But even that wartime, worst-case scenario is just part of the Navy’s problem. Keep looking upstream.

For example, Navy spent 25 years and multibillions of dollars on a program to buy and build a vessel — two classes of vessel, actually — called the littoral combat ship (LCS). Yet nearly everyone recognizes that these underarmed ships are unsuitable for most overseas Navy missions. Many inside-the-Navy blogs are filled with disparaging comments about the “little crappy ship.”

It’s perfectly obvious to outsiders, too.

At a conference a few years back, I spoke with a senior foreign naval officer who was posted to the U.S. as his country’s naval attaché. “Those LCS vessels are ridiculous,” he said. He expounded at length, describing the shortcomings of LCS, and the Navy system that built them.

Clearly the LCS program should have been cancelled years ago. But no one in military or civilian authority has the guts to say that LCS is a waste.

Or how about the DDG-1000 program, which built three futuristic Zumwalt-class destroyers for about $15 billion. The ship sports high-tech weaponry called the Advanced Gun System, designed to provide long-distance artillery support for landing forces. Except that the gun system doesn’t work, and even if it did, it uses specialized shells that are so expensive that the Navy cannot afford to buy them.

It has more problems, too. So aside from a few showcase sailings, the Zumwalt vessels are simply experimental platforms, sailing about on test ranges until someone somewhere figures out what to do next.

To the Navy’s credit, the submarine side still works. Perhaps it’s the unforgiving nature of submerging and expecting to come back up. Or it’s the long-lasting legacy of the late Adm. Hyman Rickover, who accepted nothing less than the absolute best.

Yet the Navy’s next class of submarines — the Columbia class — has long waged an uphill battle for funding and resources.

Then again, the Navy is people, not just ships and airplanes. It is a collection of many hearts and souls, from junior enlisted sailors to senior officers to civilian employees and contractors at shipyards and entire industrial chains. Retirees, veterans and families too, I must add…

But every collection of people requires leadership. From senior enlisted to midgrade officers to admirals. Add in civilian policymakers and the politicians who sit on congressional committees and their staff.

And where is that leadership? AWOL, to use an old term…

On Roosevelt, the captain apparently didn’t trust his chain of command. He went outside channels. At the secretary level, firing the captain came down swift. No trust from the top down, either.

Meanwhile, note that all intermediate levels of admirals — from the battle group commander to the commander of the Pacific Fleet to Pacific Command to chief of naval operations — were cut out of the pattern. Oddly, they have remained pretty much silent.

Consider this… Since the end of the Cold War — and ironically, despite many years of land war in the Middle East — the U.S. Navy has tended toward a “no major war” design and structure.

Over the past three decades, we’ve seen plenty of emphasis on how the Navy should adapt to, if not reflect, the social norms of American society. It’s “political correctness” run riot, in many instances. (For example, there are no urinals on the latest aircraft carrier, USS Gerald R. Ford!)

In the Navy — as in much else of American society — much of the personnel system has adopted a bean-counting, paint-by-numbers approach, especially toward bringing people in and managing careers. Sex and race are highly scrutinized metrics at every step of the human dynamic, from admissions to the U.S. Naval Academy to career-making/breaking selection and promotion boards.

In other words, Navy displays a “peacetime” approach to getting things done: slowly, bureaucratically and at great expense. Fighting the next war — let alone the next naval war — seems to be more of a secondary effort.

For all the big budget that goes through the pipeline, we’re left with an under-resourced, undertrained Navy. The service is jaded by supporting 20 years of continuous war in far-off deserts, while at the same time overstretched by all manner of political missions and mission creep.

As an outsider looking in, and from the flight deck to the E-Ring of the Pentagon, the Navy displays a sense of an institution adrift. Senior officers and policymakers are quite aware of peer and near-peer nations that are building up impressive numbers of ships and Navy-killing weapons that can sink our fleet at sea or pier. But they seem to lack trust and forthrightness, to the point of tubing each other.

So I find myself agreeing with Adm. Beatty. There’s something wrong with our bloody ships today.

Our bloody ships, and our bloody leadership too, I’d add.

On that note, I rest my case.

That’s all for now… Thank you for subscribing and reading.

Best wishes,

Byron King

Byron King
Managing Editor, Whiskey & Gunpowder
WhiskeyAndGunpowderFeedback@StPaulResearch.com

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