The Drift

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(This post was first published March 27 as an e-newsletter)

ALEXANDRIA – Good Morning, Drifters

I apologize for the delay, your humble correspondent suffers from migraines (which seems trite, now that we’re in a public health crisis) but finishing this letter last night was not an option.

This is going to be a quick newsletter and, yes, it’s about coronavirus. There are things that need to be said about it, but you have my word that from here on out, we’re only going to discuss it when necessary, and I’ll keep that bar pretty high. I’m as tired of hearing about it as you are, I’m sure.

But the degree to which the military was caught flat-footed on this is astounding and needs to be discussed. I’ll dive right into it.

Let’s Drift.


Magical Thinking

Spoke to a Marine the other day who told me about a meeting with his CO last week. It was, as has been extensivelydocumented, an ill-advised all-hands call. When one of the Marines in the formation asked why they were holding an all-hands call when they weren’t supposed to be in groups of more than 10, the CO was incredulous, asking “Where did you hear that?”

“Uh, the President, sir?”

It got to the point where one of the Marines had to pull out their phone and show the CO the president saying that on YouTube.

That’s just one story out of dozens. Defense News sister publication Military Times did a callout to troops asking how their command was handling the coronavirus outbreak, and while some spoke very highly of their command’s response, the vast majority would be funny if they weren’t so damned serious. If you’ve been following the news, I’m not telling you anything you don’t know.

I mean, this is a joke:

Better have a fresh haircut Marines, the barbershops across the Corps are still running

What is the thinking here? That since we have a bunch of teenagers, they don’t have worry if they get sick? What about the old guy at the barber shop, does that guy have to worry? What about everybody that Marine interacts with? The military is taking this lethality thing a little too far.

Here’s what I think is going on: The military is struggling to figure out what “Mission Essential” means. We’re in the middle of a public health emergency and they’re convinced that everything they are do is so damn important. While barbershops across the country are closed to cut down on the spread of coronavirus, the Marines have classified their hair as mission essential. And if that doesn’t say something about how extraordinarily poorly this has been handled, I don’t know what does.

And maybe you think I’m going overboard, but maybe you missed yesterday’s news. Yesterday the U.S. Navy pulled a deployed aircraft carrier off the front lines in the Pacific because of Coronavirus.

In the Pacific, a COVID-19 outbreak sidelines deployed aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt

Twenty-five sailors have tested positive so far, and since many of you have been on a deployed ship before, I probably don’t have to say this but here goes: If 25 sailors have it, dozens if not hundreds of sailors probably have it. And hundreds more will be in what the Navy is calling “restriction of movements” because of interactions with sick sailors. According to an interview on Hugh Hewitt this morning, Acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly says the ship could be offline in Guam for 25 days. But fear not, the Roosevelt is ready to respond to a crisis, according to a statement from Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Michael Gilday:

“We are confident that our aggressive response will keep USS Theodore Roosevelt able to respond to any crisis in the region,” he said.

But, of course, it was that same CNO who said two days earlier that “We’re not in a position right now where we need to pull that ship in or take that ship off the front line, so this will be a day-by-day evaluation.”

Day-to-day apparently meant two days and they were forced to pull the ship in. Now, to be completely fair they said it was a planned port visit. But certainly the 25-day layover wasn’t planned.

And then there is the leadership at the top, and truth be told I think this is where the breakdown lies. In a March 24 press briefing, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper said he was leaving individual commanders in charge of making the accommodations they saw fit in their unique circumstances:

The Quote:“At the end of the day, though, given all the different scenarios and factors that each one of you and us face, I trust upon our commanders and our senior enlisted personnel to do the right thing particular to your unit, to your situation, to your mission.

“We'll talk about this in more detail. But again, it's up to the commanders and senior NCOs to make the right calls relevant to their situation to ensure that we protect our people while at the same time maintaining mission readiness.”

Listen up: Everyone is in the same situation. There’s no unique circumstance. The virus doesn’t care. It’s a public health emergency and commanders aren’t medical professionals. We know what the medical professionals are saying: Social distancing, no groups over 10.

But lacking any clear direction from the top, Marines are still getting their hair cut. The military needs to figure out what’s actually mission essential and what measures need to be taken to protect the force. The four stars and SECDEF need to step up, this isn’t the time to punt to the lower echelons. It’s time for leadership.

Here’s a great quote from a story Army Times wrote interviewing an Army physician, and I think it sums it up well:

The Quote:“Limited duty days and restricted PT are half-measures and you’re going to get half-assed results," the physician said. “That may have been great for last week, but this week, the cat’s out of the bag."

Let’s go to The Hotwash.

The Hotwash

As sometimes happens, the topic of last week’s Drift evolved into a full story. If you missed it, please check it out here:

With Iran tensions high, a US military command pushes a dubious carrier strategy

Here’s the rub:

Excerpt: But some experts and former senior Navy officials warn there is very little evidence that Iran is deterred by the presence of two carriers. Though they do note there’s ample evidence that the deployment draws forces away from operations aimed at deterring China and Russia — something on which the U.S. is supposed to focus per its National Defense Strategy.

Furthermore, they told Defense News that the payoff for maintaining two carriers in the region may not be worth the stinging toll it exacts on Navy readiness, adding that pursuing such as strategy will reverse the hard-won readiness gains of recent years.

More Reading

USNS Comfort Will Depart for New York on Saturday with Trump, Modly in Attendance

JFC: Navy Officials Evaluating How COVID-19 Will Affect ROTC Summer Cruises

PACFLEET Commander Aquilino Adjusting to Operating Under Threat of Coronavirus

The Marines want to get rid of their tanks. Here’s why.

Germany reportedly moving toward a split buy of Super Hornets, Growlers and Eurofighter Typhoons to replace Tornado jets