When China sneezes, the world catches a COVID. The world woke up to this grim reality Mar 2020.
As India entered the last week of a 21-day lockdown to contain the COVID-19 pandemic, Chief of the Naval Staff Admiral Karambir Singh, PVSM, AVSM, ADC, sent out a sobering message to all naval personnel and their families. In a video hosted on the navy’s official website Apr 7, Adm KB Singh struck a grim but wise caution: “it can no longer be business as usual”.
A Timely Signal
The CNS address couldn’t have been more timely. The global pandemic has propagated across oceans within weeks, striking military personnel and civilians alike. At last count, two modern navies (USN and French Navy) have reported outbreak of COVID-19 onboard their biggest warships. Nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt leads the count with over 230 COVID-positive cases. Pentagon has confirmed that over 2000 serving USN personnel have tested positive even as they warned enemies “dont test us”. Unlike US Department of Defense which has been largely transparent with their COVID updates, many countries have chosen to keep their COVID numbers out of public domain.
A ‘war of words’ – breaching service protocols hitherto seen as sacrosanct – recently lead to ouster of Capt Brett Crozier, former Commanding Officer of USS Theodore Roosevelt, and resignation of then-Acting Navy Secretary Thomas B. Modly (on whose orders Capt Crozier was relieved of command). Amidst these upheavals, Commander of US Pacific Fleet has published COVID-19 mitigation and prevention frameworks (read it here).
Frontline units cannot work from home
Frontline units of military that cannot ‘work from home’ can act like petri dishes for the virus. The effect of infectious disease outbreak is not same across services. Navies – and among them, blue water navies – are particularly vulnerable because they deploy around the world. A large outbreak can well render a ship out of service for extended period. Prescribed containment or ‘flattening’ strategies are incompatible with shipboard life and naval ships’ charter. Prevention may well be the only real option.
Adm KB Singh’s 3-point agenda
To this end, Adm KB Singh’s message is both prudent and sagacious. After speaking of ongoing efforts by the navy to support the nation in this period of crisis, KB laid out a 3-point agenda for his primary constituency – the naval community. This will carry through the rank and file of Indian Navy and shape response in the coming weeks. His call to action can be summarised as below:
- Keep our personnel and families safe.
- Continue to support the national efforts with innovation, spirit of generosity and attitude of selfless service.
- Keep the guard up. Operational readiness must always remain an important priority.
Armed forces are the last bastion in this fight. If they as caregivers turn into care-seekers, we have a big problem on hand.
KB did well to underline this aspect right at the outset. The signal is loud and clear. Services can be of immense help for Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR). But this crisis throws up some unique challenges. The enemy is a virus – invisible, highly infectious, and immune to traditional weapons in our arsenal. Unlike other forms of HADR where armed forces are called-in without due thought to their safety, here rules of the game are different. Without being suitably kitted or materially prepared, the virus can overwhelm an aircraft carrier quicker than it does a city like New York.
Physically distant but socially cohesive
The propensity for taking on challenges must be weighed against a scale of risk. Our operational assets – ships and submarines – must remain free from the coronavirus. KB reiterated that ‘social distancing’ may not be a feasible due to the very nature of life aboard ships. The US Navy learnt this the hard way. KB wisely advocates physical distancing, viz. keeping 6-feet from each other, where possible, while retaining the ‘socially cohesive’ way of naval life. This is a sterling signal from top leadership that instils esprit-de-corps into rank and file even as the world screams out loud “keep away from people”.
Navies are vulnerable during pandemics
Navy is arguably the most disadvantaged service in this pandemic. Warship complement is derived from a manning plan dictated by weapons, sensors and duty stations that have to be manned during action. Ships bristling with weapons and sensors will thus be manpower-heavy. Any form of physical or social distancing at sea is admittedly difficult. Particularly for India, our ships, messes, bridge and upper decks are teeming with men, often more than other navies, as evident during multilateral exercises. Sailors and officers live cheek-by-jowl, sharing heads (washroom in naval lexicon), mess decks and work stations.
A sizeable portion of the ships company includes bachelors and forced bachelors who live onboard (called ‘in-living’). Married personnel (called ‘bundlemen’ or MLR, acronym for ‘money in lieu of ration’) live ashore when not on duty. When ‘MLR libertymen to clean’ is piped at the end of a workday in harbour, homebound MLR sailors have to traverse public spaces to reach cramped quarters which, in the case of sailors, may even be shared due paucity of accomodation. Their lives are interlinked, woven around an eternal cycle of ‘red’, ‘blue’ and ‘white’ watches. In the rough and tumble of shipboard life, any form of distancing is at best a pipe dream.
Don’t even get started on the third medium. How do you explain social distancing to submariners who patrol beneath the seas for months on end, living out of cramped spaces, two toilets for 70-80 crew members, all crew except CO hot bunking (sharing bunks on rotation)?
Yet versatile, flexible & resilient
Vice Admiral Suresh Bangara, who retired in 2006 as Commander-in-Chief of IN’s Southern Naval Command, has brought out many salient aspects of the naval community’s resilience in his blog. “When the cyclone Hudhud hit Vizag, I saw the generation we trained rising to the occasion. First, the family stood against the doors which were being blown away in the middle of the night, and having survived when every standing tree had been felled to the ground, they went through the real lockdown. No water or power for the next two weeks. Rationed by limited water tankers and most shops destroyed, the city jumped back to normalcy as if nothing had happened. That is leadership. But the generation after that hopefully learnt how not to whine or crib but to think of solutions and innovate“, he writes.
Rear Admiral Sudhir Pillai (Retd), former naval aviator and Flag Officer Naval Aviation, tweeted that “the IN has time & again demonstrated reach & flexibility at home & across IOR in times of need, with HA/DR as a primary element in its vision“, highlighting the versatility of Indian Navy to take such crises on the bow.
From deploying overnight for Tsunami relief (2004), stuffing missile containers with food packets for HADR, evacuating Indian and foreign nationals from strife-torn Yemen (2015), leading rescue efforts in cyclone-battered regions, to acting as ambassadors of peace, the Indian Navy has time and again risen to occasion. Yet, this ‘war’ is different, needing unique safeguards.
A threat requiring counter-intuitive response
On a warship, the first response to any external threat or imminent enemy attack is to sound ‘action stations’ and assume the highest degree of readiness. At this call, every single action post is manned with full complement; weapons ‘stand-to’ and sensors spring to life. But here is an enemy – a virus – that thrives when people come together. Though navies prepare for nuclear, biological and chemical attacks, no navy could have prepared for a pandemic outbreak. The greatest navy on earth stands humbled today within a month of COVID outbreak. I would benchmark our capability and vulnerability accordingly.
To his credit, Adm KB Singh has spoken in words what other service chiefs have probably been rueing behind closed doors. I applaud his sage counsel and honesty of purpose.
Tough times call for tough measures. As per ground reports, Indian Navy has pulled out all stops to contain the outbreak of COVID in its ranks. ‘Stay where you are’ is reportedly the dictat. All leave, temporary duty, training, sports and social activities have either been stopped or curtailed. The full ‘firepower’ of warships, bases, air stations, dockyards, and civilian workforce has been turned to stopping COVID-19 in its tracks through innovation, mobilization of medical resources, logistic support and manufacturing.
KB also sounded a caution to keep the guard up for traditional and asymmetric threats. This should inform decision makers at every level that COVID-19 is not an opportunity for scoring brownie points or one-upmanship.
KB is understandably proud of the unsparing efforts and innovations being churned out by the men in whites. His call to “use the lockdown to unlock our true potential, maintain spirit of innovation, attitude of selfless service and work with a sense of generosity” in the days to come could well be extrapolated to the society and the nation at large.
Sham noh Varunah. May the lord of the seas be auspicious unto all of us. We shall overcome.
©KP Sanjeev Kumar, 2020. All rights reserved. I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Cover photo courtesy Indian Navy’s official website.