Biological warfare

Navies and Biological Agents

Joe Varner, 03 April 2020.

Chinese strategists have dreamed of an asymmetric method to disable the US aircraft carrier for decades.[1] Now they have succeeded beyond their wildest dreams but not by deliberate action.
USS Theodore Roosevelt is tied up at Guam evacuating the crew to deal with a COVID-19 outbreak on board ship, and the USS Ronald Reagan is tied up in port in Japan as they deal with an outbreak of the deadly virus.[2] This is not to say that the Chinese intentionally disabled US aircraft carriers but that has been the result through their neglect to contain the virus. Both US carriers are likely out of action for a month or so as they quarantine infected crew, test other sailors to put them back to work, and decontaminate their warships. This leaves the United States without any aircraft carriers in the Western Pacific key to deterring an aggressive China and North Korea. Decontamination of the interior of a warship for a virus is not likely to be an easy task. Replacement carriers are not available now with two others off the Persian Gulf to deter Iran.[3] Five other aircraft carriers are in long-term maintenance in US ports.[4]

The United States is not alone in discovering the effects of a biological agent on a warship and its crew. China’s Changzhou (549), a Type 054A frigate, was in quarantine after its crew tested positive for COVID-19.[5] The Russian Navy has quarantined Eagle, an Oscar II class guided-missile submarine of the Northern Fleet.[6] A second, unidentified Russian submarine is also out of action the crew in quarantine because of the virus.[7] A Dutch submarine HMNLS Dolphin, has also returned home and put out of action as members of its crew tested positive for COVID-19.[8] The vulnerability of warships and their crew to biologic agents is real and while their might be space to self-isolate on an aircraft carrier there is no room in a frigate, or a submarine and the decontamination efforts are no easier.

It has been a long-time since Carthaginian sailors under Hannibal fired clay pots with venomous snakes at Roman Galleys in 190 BC as a means of terrorizing their crews and disabling the vessels in a fight. But clearly, the danger posed by biological agents to the operational effectiveness of warships has not gone away. Let’s hope that someone is writing down the lessons that will be learned by these incidents with the goal of protecting Western navies in the immediate and long-term future because our enemies will be.


  1. Loro Horta, “The Dragon’s Spear: China’s Asymmetric Strategy,”, October 13, 2017,
  2. Andrew Court, “Both US aircraft carriers in the Pacific are taken out of action for up to a MONTH after sailors get infected with coronavius - giving China an almost free hand in the region as Pentagon raises threat level to second highest setting,” , March 27, 2020,
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid.
  5. DP staff, “Crew of Chinese PLA Navy Frigate Changzhou Placed in Quarantine Over Coronavirus Fears: Reports,”, February 21, 2020
  6. HI Sutton, “Another Submarine Quarantined: Nowhere Is Out Of Reach Of Coronavirus,” March 30, 2020, Thomas Nilsen, “Entire crew of nuclear submarine in coronavirus quarantine,”, March 28, 2020,
  7. David Batashvili, “Rondeli Russian Military Digest,”, March 29, 2020,
  8. HI Sutton, Ibid. Kyle Mizokami, “Some Nuclear Submarine Crews May Not Even Know About the Pandemic,”, March 31, 2020,


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