Get exclusive audio briefings by experts for experts on the current events that matter.

Operational Readiness and Leadership in a Time of COVID

April 3, 2020

Episode Notes:

At first, only three crew members tested positive for COVID.  Then 15, then 25. Within a few days the number was almost 100, with another 1,200 awaiting test results.  This was the situation that confronted the commanding officer of the USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71) a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier deployed to the Indo-Pacific region. The ship pulled into Guam, where more advanced medical care was available, but the captain lacked resources to effectively implement guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and the Navy for social distancing to prevent the further spread of the virus among his crew in the cramped conditions onboard. He wrote a letter to Navy leadership, indicating that the ship could operate with increased risk if needed in time of war or crisis, but that in peacetime, he needed to take the unprecedented step of removing nearly all of his crew from the ship to prevent the virus from spreading. The letter, which was subsequently obtained and reprinted by the San Francisco Chronicle, sparked debate over the impact of the novel coronavirus on military readiness, and the stark choices that confront commanders who face a COVID outbreak in their unit.  Shortly after this podcast was recorded (but before it was released), the commanding officer of the Roosevelt, Capt. Brett Crozier, was fired by Acting Secretary of the Navy Thomas Modly, reportedly because Modly believed Crozier was involved in leaking his letter to the press. While the issue brings up separate issues of trust and command, it does not change the substance of the discussion that follows.

To discuss the leadership and readiness implications of COVID-19 in the military, we are joined by Rear Adm. Peg Klein, who since 2017 has served as dean of the College of Leadership and Ethics at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island.  In the course of a 35-year career in naval aviation, Klein commanded a squadron, an airwing, and task force of five ships, 30 aircraft, and over 3,300 sailors and marines engaged in combat operations in support of Operation Odyssey Dawn in Libya. She also served as commandant of midshipmen at the Naval Academy, special adviser for military professionalism to the secretary of defense, and as the chief of staff at the (then) newly created U.S. Cyber Command.


[ 02:23 ] To start, as background for our listeners, can you explain why shipboard conditions pose such a risk for the spread of COVID, and whether there are similar risks in other close-quarters environments associated with the military, such as barracks?

[ 04:13 ] The military does dangerous things on a routine basis, partly in order to deter adversaries from taking action that might harm U.S. national security. How do commanders balance the risk posed to their troops by COVID against the potential risk than an adversary might take advantage of decreased readiness if protective measures against the virus are implemented?

[ 05:55 ] Then-Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Richardson told commanding officers following the 2017 collisions which resulted in the deaths of 17 sailors, that he expected them to make the tough call and say “no” if demanded by readiness considerations.  How does a leader know when that time has come?

[ 07:41 ] Much like the COVID outbreak on the Roosevelt put the CO in a position of needing to balance the competing interests of operational readiness and the health of his crew, civic leaders across the U.S. are being forced to balance between critical economic functions, which affect the ability of people to pay rent and put food on the table, and public health. While the military environment is obviously different from the civic environment, are there lessons or leadership principles that carry over? In other words, could military commanders facing a COVID outbreak learn from the choices civilian leaders have made or vice versa?

[ 10:13 ] More commanders will be faced with difficult choices like those confronting the CO of the Theodore Roosevelt. As someone who has led sailors and marines in combat, and who educates senior military leaders on leadership and ethics, what advice would you offer?

Sign up now and start listening to "The WarCast"!
Already a member? Sign In to have access to our Warcasts