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The Pentagon’s inability to provide decisive, clear guidance on the novel coronavirus pandemic is shaking confidence in Secretary of Defense Mark Esper.
As the coronavirus and the diseases it causes, COVID-19, spread throughout America’s national security enterprise, concerns are rising that the former Raytheon executive is poorly equipped to grasp the operational and strategic challenges of this emerging biological threat. The slow-motion failure of Pentagon senior leadership became increasingly apparent Tuesday with the leaking to the press of a four-page letter by Captain Brett Crozier, the commander of the USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71). The letter pleads for guidance and support amid an outbreak aboard the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, where 150 to 200 new cases had been identified among the crew of over 4,000 in the past few days. Later in the day, Acting U.S. Navy Secretary Thomas Modly said the service was working to evacuate most of the sailors from the ship.
As of Monday, 1,087 service members and civilian employees had been diagnosed with COVID-19.
The Pentagon’s inability to “find, fix and finish” this emerging threat, coupled with the overall effort by Esper to avoid accountability by, in large part, throwing the responsibility for COVID-19 guidance to unprepared and unready unit commanders, is generating serious concern throughout America’s national security enterprise.
In the wake of deploying high-profile but likely ineffective hospital ships to New York and Los Angeles, the murmurs that Secretary Esper has been outmatched by this new biological threat are becoming louder and harder to ignore.
The Pentagon Is Losing the Bubble
Left without an overarching strategy and focused, empowered leadership, the Pentagon is “losing the bubble” as COVID-19 stresses the entire National Security infrastructure. Mismatched and contradictory guidance has been bubbling up for weeks as poorly equipped line commanders grapple with changing national guidance and contradictory messaging.
That all came to a head on Monday, with the dire—and unprecedented—four-page plea from Captain Crozier.
Captain Crozier correctly identified the challenge of managing soldiers in an unconventional non-battle situation, writing, “we are not at war, and therefore cannot allow a single Sailor to perish as a result of this pandemic unnecessarily.” The Pentagon certainly has wide leeway in forcing service members to accept risk in extreme circumstances, but, in this instance, the tension between civilian protocols and military wartime protocols is tangible.
The Captain—and, after being prompted, the Navy—acknowledge the obvious fact that the ship is unable to fully function as a combat asset. However, the message appears to not be getting through to highest levels of Pentagon leadership, as evidenced by an out-of-touch Joint Staff tweet from Sunday, claiming that the virus has “no impact to our ability to conduct operations in the Pacific, Atlantic, & Middle East, wherever we need to go.”
With COVID-19, the Pentagon needs to make hard decisions now and take accountability for those decisions over the coming days and weeks. But Mark Esper is doing everything possible to avoid making the tough calls and taking responsibility for them. The resulting muddle is proving to be a mess that will snarl the Pentagon for at least the next few months, and may well tempt North Korea and other rivals to exploit America’s strategic disarray.
What Esper Must Do To Survive:
To survive, the Secretary of Defense must either make some hard choices or identify and empower a single qualified leader to provide decisive guidance to the force. In some instances and situations, this guidance may differ from civil practices, and force units to accept risk and potential heartbreak. But the strategic guidance must be developed and promulgated at the highest level, leveraging the best biomedical intelligence available.
At this point, proffering strategic platitudes with little operational guidance to back them is unhelpful. Esper’s three strategic foci, as articulated during a March 17 press briefing, are contradictory. Those goals, “Protecting our troops, their families, and our personnel; second, safeguarding our national security missions; and third, supporting the administration’s whole-of-government approach to addressing this national health emergency,” certainly sound nice. But those nice, “sound bite-worthy” goals are inherently in opposition, and can only be mediated by decisive and empowered leadership—leadership that Secretary Esper is failing to provide.
The leadership failure has far wider national security ramifications. Rather than assuring “the American people that the United States military remains ready and capable of meeting all of our national security requirements,” countries like North Korea are actively exploiting America’s disarray to launch missiles and take a far more belligerent tone than ever.
To survive, the Secretary must appoint a leader who is talented enough to marry the Nation’s operational requirements with Esper’s more humane goals for the force, mixing the best of the Pentagon’s biomedical resources with operators who, after years of focusing on “lethality” above all else, are either poorly equipped to understand—or who have spent years ignoring—biological threats.