COVID-19 affects the military

The Rim of the Pacific military exercise will proceed  from August 17-31 as an at-sea only event in light of COVID-19 concerns.

The Commander, U.S. Pacific Fleet will host the biennial maritime exercise.  The theme of RIMPAC 2020 is “Capable, Adaptive, Partners.”

“In these challenging times, it is more important than ever that our maritime forces work together to protect vital shipping lanes and ensure freedom of navigation through international waters,” said Commander, U.S. Pacific Fleet Adm. John Aquilino. “And we will operate safely, using prudent mitigation measures.” There will be no social events ashore, and a minimal footprint of staff ashore for command and control, logistics, and other support functions.

Around the world, governments have placed restrictions on port calls by cruise ships, concerned about the spread of the Covid-19 coronavirus amongst passengers. A crisis in the US territory of Guam involving the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt has highlighted the same concern for military vessels.

Deployed in the Western Pacific, the US warship has become the centre of a political storm with the spread of Covid-19 amongst its 5,000-strong crew. After visiting Vietnam in March, the aircraft carrier travelled to Guam, the US territory of 170,000 people in the western Pacific. Authorities now believe a number of the carrier’s sailors were infected with the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus during shore leave in Vietnam.

Earlier this week, there were 940 active cases of COVID-19 amongst sailors from the ship .  Anchored off Guam, the warship’s commanding officer Captain Brett Crozier sought permission to relocate up to 3,000 personnel onshore, to limit the rate of infection in the cramped quarters below decks. Crozier’s memo to US military authorities was leaked to the media, and he was relieved of command.

As the US Navy moved sailors from the stricken aircraft carrier into empty hotels on Guam, many indigenous Chamoru expressed concern. On 1 April, the Chamoru women’s organisation I Hagan Famalao’an Guåhan wrote to Guam Governor Lou Leon Guerrero opposed to the housing of US sailors in tourist hotels. The letter called for sailors to be accommodated in the US military bases that take up a third of the islands land area, such as Apra Harbour Naval Base and Andersen Air Force Base.

Guam only has two civilian hospitals and the territory’s health service is already stretched as local Covid-19 infection rates increase, with more than 130 confirmed diagnoses (including four deaths) at time of writing. The Guam government turned away the cruise ship MV Westerman in February, fearful of spreading Covid-19 from infected passengers. But as a US territory, Guam has no authority to block an American warship from its harbours.

More than 25,000 military personnel from 20 countries – including Australia, New Zealand, France and Britain – are scheduled to join the RIMPAC exercises. China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has previously participated in RIMPAC, but has been excluded this year because of rising US-China tensions.

In Hawaii, the local tourism and sex industries welcome big-spending sailors on shore leave, but indigenous Kanaka Maoli have long opposed the use of their islands for US military wargames and weapons testing. This concern is all the greater during the latest pandemic. The first case of Covid-19 in Hawai’i was reported on 6 March: a month later, Hawaii’s state governor announced there were 371 confirmed infections, with numbers still rising.

At the last RIMPAC exercise in 2018, crews from visiting warships were allowed onshore for rest and recreation, putting them in daily contact with civilians.  Church, community and peace groups have been petitioning US politicians for cancellation of the exercises. 

The Australian and New Zealand governments have not yet announced whether RAN and RNZN warships will join RIMPAC 2020. An Australian Department of Defence spokesperson told Islands Business: “In line with the advice of the Chief Medical Officer and Australian Government, Defence is currently reconsidering the status of its upcoming events to ensure the safety of personnel involved.”

After widespread popular protest in Okinawa and Guam against the basing of US Marines and their families, Australia agreed to host some marines through an annual rotation in the Northern Territory. Both Canberra and Washington claim that the Marines are not formally based in Australia, but the regular rotation ensures that US boots are on the ground for most of the year. Despite this, the latest rotation of 2,500 Marines through Darwin has now been cancelled by Australian Defence Minister Linda Reynolds, following the decision of the Northern Territory to tighten border controls and prevent the further spread of the coronavirus.

The government hopes to be back in business next year, with Reynolds stressing: “Any decision in relation to the 2020 Marine Rotational Force – Darwin (MRF-D) in no way affects Australia’s commitment to host next year’s, or subsequent, MRF-D rotations.”