US Navy must stay at sea and stay vigilant to defeat coronavirus

Greece stared death in the face in 480 B.C. The Great King of Persia was summoning overpowering strength to conquer the city-state of Athens, and ultimately the Greek world as a whole. Alert to mortal peril, Athenian leaders dispatched envoys to plead with Pythia, the oracle at Delphi, for divine counsel. As the historian Herodotus reports, the Athenians found her first prophecy indecipherable. So they went back seeking a better one.

This time the oracle supplied clearer but still murky guidance. “Farsighted Zeus,” proclaimed Pythia, had granted Athens “a wall made of wood” for defense. “Withdraw, turn your backs,” and flee the “army gigantic” marching against Europe. Do this and “Salamis Divine” would destroy “the children of women.” (Salamis was an island just west of the city.) The prophecy ignited a furious debate. What, wondered Athenians, was the wooden wall? Some believed the oracle meant the city walls. If so, Athenians should withdraw within the city and mount a passive defense against assault.

Others — chiefly Themistocles, founder of the Athenian navy — rejoined that the city’s fleet of triple-decked galleys constituted its surest defense. Heeding the prophecy meant evacuating metropolitan Athens, transporting the populace to Salamis, and preparing for sea battle. Naval proponents thus espoused an active brand of defense. They advocated making the Aegean Sea a physical barrier between Athenians and the Persian host and dispatching the fleet to defeat the Persians before they could land on the island. Salamis Divine and its saltwater guardian would slay the children of women, all right — Persian women.

Themistocles’ oratory carried the day. Athenians took ship, trusting to their floating wooden wall. The navy deposited city inhabitants on Salamis, arrayed itself for action, and won one of the most smashing triumphs in the annals of sea combat. Athens commanded the sea. Greek freedom endured.

There’s wisdom for the U.S. Navy in Herodotus’ tale of prophecy and nautical derring-do. Last week Adm. Mike Gilday, the chief of naval operations or America’s top naval officer, released a video message reviewing precautions the service has taken to fend off the coronavirus. Chief among them: enlisting water as a barrier against contagion. Themistocles’ fleet staged a waterborne defense of land against human antagonists; the U.S. Navy fleet can defend its crews from landborne pestilence by remaining at sea. It can self-isolate.

Staying underway with a crew free of infection — that’s the ultimate in social distancing! It also carries strategic and political value. Keeping a sizable fraction of the fleet underway, in fighting trim, signals potential antagonists that the United States’ pandemic woes are not China’s or Russia’s opportunity to settle scores in the Taiwan Strait, South China Sea, or Black Sea. And indeed, Adm. Gilday noted that extending voyages represents both a public-health measure and a deterrent against aggression.

Message: America’s wall of steel stands.

Now, no strategy is foolproof. Much as teleworkers venture forth in search of groceries, ships at sea demand regular supplies of fuel, stores and ordnance. Crews could suffer contamination through the resupply process. Technology explains why this risk is inescapable. In one way navies have reverted back to the age of Themistocles, when ships couldn’t ride the waves for long. Sailors beached their galleys most every day because they had to. In the ensuing centuries, during the age of sail, merchantmen and ships of war could remain at sea as long as their food and stores held out. After all, wind was their motive power. It was unpredictable but also inexhaustible.

No longer. Today oil-fired gas turbines, diesel engines, or the occasional steam plant drive ships through the water. Mechanical propulsion grants vessels freedom of movement, but it leaves them dependent on constant logistical support. Navy warships must refuel every few days. Not even nuclear-propelled vessels are exempt from the tyranny of fuel. An atomic-powered aircraft carrier can steam more or less forever, but its complement of aircraft burns through jet fuel at breakneck speed — emptying the ship’s tanks. A carrier accomplishes little without warplanes able to take to the sky.

Logistics is life.

During World War II the U.S. Navy raised resupplying at sea to a high art. Trouble is, oilers and stores ships that ferry goods to the fleet must put into port to obtain those goods. There’s a risk of contagion at each stage in the supply chain connecting producers to logistics ships to the battle fleet. After all, coronavirus spreads by touch. Infected supplies could infect sailors secluded on the high seas.

Nor does Gilday’s disease-fighting scheme come without costs. Ships on protracted cruises are disrupting their normal operating rhythm. Hulls aren’t undergoing upkeep or upgrades; crews aren’t recuperating from sea duty. If the pandemic drags on for long, high operational tempo will wear away at battle readiness. And what if the virus gets inside a ship’s steel walls? Size matters. Big ships such as carriers and amphibious transports have options. They have cavernous spaces to quarantine the stricken. Smaller vessels such as destroyers and attack submarines are cramped. Navy authorities should monitor the latter with special care. Their crews must be inventive to contain the spread of disease.

All of that said, it’s hard to envision a better strategy than Gilday’s for fighting contagion while discouraging aggression. Themistocles would approve. Advice from the ancients: Put your faith in America’s maritime wall of steel.

James R. Holmes is J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and the author, most recently, of “A Brief Guide to Maritime Strategy.” The views voiced here are his alone.

Tags Ancient Greeks Coronavirus COVID-19 naval strategy Pandemic Themistocles US Navy

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