More than 1,200 U.S. military personnel and their families are affected by the coronavirus, leaving the Department of Defense virtually at war with itself on two competing instincts: to protect troops from the virus and to continue its decades-old mission patrol the world and participate in combat, if ordered to.
The Navy has so far refused to completely evacuate an aircraft carrier where 93 soldiers have been confirmed infected with the coronavirus. Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper has put himself on the business side as usual to maintain readiness while also saying that force protection is a top priority. President Trump, for his part, has threatened a familiar enemy, Tweeter Wednesday “Iran would pay a very heavy price” if its agents attacked American troops or assets in Iraq. Other Defense Department officials continued to insist that the carrier, Theodore Roosevelt, remain ready to carry out its missions.
The Roosevelt commander, Captain Brett E. Crozier, emphasized in a heavily worded letter that “we are not at war”. This statement raised Pacific questions to the Pentagon about what was so important about the presence of the carrier off Guam that the Department of Defense could not evacuate the ship and do a thorough cleanup, as the suggested Captain Crozier.
American warships generally spend months at sea monitoring the activities of adversaries. Vessels assigned to the Pacific fleet patrol the South China Sea, the East China Sea and the intermediate zones, sometimes undertaking so-called freedom of navigation operations which bring them closer to the disputed islands in the region. The purpose of these trips is to bring home to China that the United States does not recognize Beijing’s property claims.
US warships in the region are also keeping an eye on the nuclear and missile threat from North Korea. And they’re ready to deploy in the Arabian Sea and the Persian Gulf if tensions – with, say, Iran – soar.