This story has been updated to include comments from Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. David Berger and from Huntington Ingalls Industries CEO Mike Petters.
WASHINGTON — The U.S. Navy is almost fully vaccinated against COVID-19 in its active-duty force, but the service is unsure how many of its civilian workers were vaccinated ahead of the deadline to get the jab or leave the job — which has now been pushed to Jan. 4.
The Biden Administration originally announced Sept. 9 that government employees would have to be vaccinated by Nov. 22 and contractors would have to be vaccinated by Dec. 8.
Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro said Thursday at the Aspen Security Forum the Navy is at a 99.4 percent vaccination rate and the Marine Corps is nearing 95 percent — both for the active force.
But he told Defense News after his remarks that “on the civilian side, it’s a little harder to track because there’s so many different databases that we have to manage, so we don’t have all our ducks in a row yet with regards to being able to fully track the vaccination rates for all the civilians. That work is actually taking place now, in the next several weeks, to try to do the very best that we can to track that” for Defense Department civilians and contractors supporting the Navy and Marine Corps.
Asked if any early trends emerged on who within the civilian workforce is and isn’t vaccinated, he said it is too early to tell.
“We’re trying to do the best that we can to help educate everybody and try to address everybody’s fears and concerns, try to work with the entire workforce, quite frankly, to get them to a place where they feel comfortable taking the vaccination and being able to come to work and keep the environment safe for everybody,” he said.
Though the Marine Corps’ numbers aren’t quite as high as the Navy’s, Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. David Berger said he’s confident remaining holdouts will make the right decision by the end of November and the service won’t be forced to separate too many Marines for refusing to take the vaccine.
“Am I concerned about it? Yeah. I’m concerned about it because we have to be ready to go every day, all the time. Every Marine has to be ready to deploy,” he said in a separate discussion during the Aspen Security Forum. “We’re trained, we’re taught that your unit is more important than you are, so our focus has to be on, you need to get the vaccine to take care of yourself, your unit, your family,”
The Marine Corps officially reports 93 percent of the active force is at least partially vaccinated and 88 percent is fully vaccinated. A spokesman said the source of that data sometimes lags behind another database that leadership, including Del Toro, could be pulling from.
The service also reports, on the reserve side, only 69 percent is at least partially vaccinated and just 56 percent is fully vaccinated. Berger said he thinks those numbers are lower than on the active side because the reservists’ deadline is a month later and because units would only be updating their records once a month when the Marines meet to drill.
Ultimately, “I don’t think it will be thousands of Marines” who will refuse to comply with the vaccine mandate, but “we’ll have to wait until the end of November to see.”
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby on Nov. 1 said Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin “has been very clear with the leaders of the military departments that he wants them to execute the mandate with a sense of compassion and understanding,” he said, adding “leaders have a range of tools available to them to help troops make the right decisions for themselves, for the units, for the families, short of using the Uniform Code of Military Justice, therefore, short of punitive measures.”
Still, Berger and the Marine Corps have taken a hard line, issuing a memo stating that Marines who do not comply with the vaccine mandate and are not granted a waiver will be processed for administrative separation.
Berger said waivers are being processed within about a week of their receipt but that few are being granted. He hopes younger Marines who have not gotten their shots yet will fall in line once they see their immediate leadership comply with the mandate, but ultimately Berger said he stands by the memo and the threat to kick out Marines who ignore what he called a lawful order from the defense secretary.
The memo was meant to “take all the ambiguity out. All of it. It’s black and white,” the commandant said. “There is no gray area: you must get vaccinated.”
Industry has faced an even steeper climb in getting its workforce to comply with the Biden administration mandate, with several shipyards in the September timeframe reporting their rates were hovering around 50 percent.
In a Thursday earnings call that took place as news was emerging about the vaccine deadline change, Huntington Ingalls Industries chief executive Mike Petters told investors the company is “around 75 percent [in terms of employees vaccinated for COVID-19]. We’ve seen a tremendous uptick in the last 30 days and folks getting the vaccine.”
When the company previously addressed vaccination rates, they were higher in headquarters and managerial positions than in production jobs at the company’s two shipyards. The company did not disclose any kind of breakdown of vaccination rates at the Mississippi-based Ingalls Shipbuilding or Virginia-based Newport News Shipbuilding.
Addressing the mandate for contractors, Del Toro said it’s “a little bit more complicated, obviously, in the private sector for our contractors and our shipyards.”
He praised private companies for working to educate employees about where the vaccine fits in with Navy health security, and he predicted the vaccination rates will increase significantly between now and January — with the extra few weeks of time not only allowing employees to get last-minute shots but also giving the Navy and private companies time to work through legal issues around the mandate.
Del Toro said the workforce challenge comes at a time when shipbuilding is critical, as the Navy tries to maintain an edge over China’s growing military force. The secretary called for a 3-5 percent increase beyond inflation to the shipbuilding budget to support the Navy’s needs.
However, Del Toro didn’t jump at a chance to argue for a bigger fleet. He said, he agrees with Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday that the service must focus on improving the lethality, range and survivability of current systems, rather than trying to increase capacity right now.
He called for a “stable” capacity in the near term to meet the threats of the next few years, using modernization projects like the development of hypersonic missiles to make the current force more capable for a high-end fight. Developing a hypersonic missile and putting it in the Zumwalt-class destroyer, for example, creates “a really formidable deterrent to China in the next five to six years,” he said.
He also cited the Navy’s aviation efforts to build a more capable force rather than a larger one. The Navy asked to end its acquisition of Boeing F/A-18E-F Super Hornets in fiscal 2022; the budget still under consideration in Congress. Instead, he said, the Navy and Marine Corps want to focus on Lockheed Martin’s F-35B and F-35C Joint Strike Fighters, which he called “a far more significantly capable aircraft than what we have for operational use in the Pacific and elsewhere to be able to meet the significantly increasing capabilities of the Chinese.”
Lawmakers have tried to add funding into the budget to continue Super Hornet acquisition — to ward off an ongoing strike fighter shortfall and to keep Boeing’s line hot as the Navy considers what its next fighter, called Next Generation Air Dominance, might look like. But Del Toro said the Navy is firm in its desire to focus on the higher-end fifth-generation F-35 to support Pacific operations against China instead of increasing the capacity of its fourth-generation Super Hornet fleet.
Megan Eckstein is the naval warfare reporter at Defense News. She has covered military news since 2009, with a focus on U.S. Navy and Marine Corps operations, acquisition programs and budgets. She has reported from four geographic fleets and is happiest when she’s filing stories from a ship. Megan is a University of Maryland alumna.