COLUMN | Covid 19 pandemic impacting upon the naval sector [Naval Gazing]

COLUMN | Covid 19 pandemic impacting upon the naval sector [Naval Gazing]

Karel Doorman

The Covid 19 pandemic is impacting upon many areas of activity, and the naval sector is no exception.

The internal spaces of warships, frequently crowded, warm and humid, provide an ideal incubation environments for disease, so it is hardly surprising that the crews of some naval vessels have been hard hit by the pandemic.

Naval operations hampered

The political fallout from the mass infection of the crew of the US Navy’s nuclear-powered aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt, which resulted in the strategically significant temporary withdrawal of the carrier from a Pacific deployment, continues. Unconfirmed reports suggest some crew members of other US warships have also been infected.

At least 700 members of the 2,000-strong crew of the French Navy’s sole aircraft carrier, Charles De Gaulle have been afflicted by the virus, causing curtailment of the carrier’s Atlantic deployment.

A deployment to the Pacific island nation of Palau by three ships of Taiwan’s Republic of China Navy, the support ship Panshi, and the frigates Yueh Fei and Kang Ding resulted in 21 sailors falling ill with the Covid 19 virus.

USS Theodore Roosevelt

Using the situation to national advantage

Meanwhile, some nations have been quick to take advantage of the situation to advance their maritime interests.

There have been reports of the Covid 19 virus infecting the crews of some PLA Navy warships, but Beijing has nevertheless ratcheted up its push for domination of the South China Sea. Early April saw a Vietnamese fishing boat rammed and sunk off the Paracel islands by a Chinese paramilitary vessel, and China Coast Guard and Maritime Militia vessels, and at least one PLA Navy warship, are escorting a Chinese survey ship operating within Malaysia’s EEZ.

A US Navy Strike Group, made up of the Japan-based F-35B fighter bomber-equipped amphibious warfare vessel America and the cruiser Bunker Hill and destroyer Barry have recently arrived at the scene.

In other proactive moves, a PLA Navy task group centred on the aircraft carrier Liaoning has transited the Miyako Strait, between Okinawa and Taiwan, while China has just officially named a number of new administrative areas, which include the Paracel and Spratly island groups.

Massed fast attack craft of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy, meanwhile, have stepped up harassment of US Navy warships operating in the Gulf region.

Some analysts are also linking recent Russian naval activity with the Covid 19 outbreak. There has been a marked increase in the transit of Russian surface warships through the English Channel, in an apparent attempt to test the responses of European navies, and there have also been reports of increased Russian submarine activity.

Humanitarian roles for warships

There is, though, a more positive aspect to the Covid 19/naval interface. Warships can provide power generation, pure water, medical and internal security teams, and, some larger ships can also offer hospital and aviation facilities. It is not surprising, therefore, that the current Covid 19 emergency has resulted in the dispatch of a significant number of naval vessels in support of government health services.

The US Navy’s two 1,000-bed hospital ships, Comfort and Mercy are now alongside, in Los Angeles, and New York respectively, providing additional resources for hard-pressed local health services.

Assisting British-governed territories in the Caribbean is UK’s aviation training ship/ primary casualty receiving ship, Argus, which has a 100-bed medical facility. The ship is carrying three large Merlin, and one smaller Wildcat helicopters. These are assets which could prove valuable for logistical support and casualty evacuation missions

Paris has sent the assault ship Dixmude, and the replenishment tanker Somme to provide assistance in the French Antilles and Guyana, while another French Navy assault ship, Mistral, is supporting the French Indian Ocean territories of Reunion and Mayotte.     

Two Royal Netherlands Navy warships, namely the multi-role support ship Karel Doorman, and the OPV Zeeland have been tasked with providing medical support to the Dutch Caribbean territories. Karel Doorman is carrying medical teams and a pair of Cougar helicopters, drone aircraft, landing craft and military vehicles, and this very versatile vessel will also be able to carry out replenishment at sea operations with French and British naval assets operating in the region.

The Irish Naval Service, meanwhile, has made the offshore patrol vessels George Bernard Shaw, and William Butler Yeats, available for use as Covid 19 testing stations in Dublin and Galway respectively.

See all the other news, reviews and features of this month’s Maritime Security Week right here

Trevor Hollingsbee

Trevor Hollingsbee was a Lieutenant in the Royal Navy and Senior Superintendent with the Hong Kong Marine Police. He is Baird Maritime's resident maritime security expert and columnist.