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Pandemics and Navies

Dr. Ann Griffiths, 31 March 2020.

You would have to be living in a cave not to have noticed that we’re currently facing a situation that hasn’t been seen since the flu epidemic following the First World War. Around the world people are self-isolating and social distancing is the flavour of the day. Hopefully with these measures we can avoid the carnage that happened back then. This may not be top of mind right now, but it’s important to ask what effect pandemics have on navies? On ships, personnel work in close quarters, and do ships have the ability to isolate crew members who are sick for a length of time? Would the reduced Duty Watch be able to carry on under constraint of minimum manning? And what about pre-deployment activities, work-ups, essential fleet maintenance?

We’ve already seen that there have been COVID-19 outbreaks on a number of US Navy ships – including an aircraft carrier – and the Russian Navy has quarantined a submarine after members of the crew were infected. Operations, exercises and training have already been affected, and construction of the new ships as part of the National Shipbuilding Strategy has been halted by Irving and Seaspan. It remains to be seen if the major Pacific exercise - RIMPAC - will be held this year.

How will all this effect fleet readiness, recruiting, naval diplomacy and future operations with other navies? When the dust settles, I hope we’ll take time to learn lessons from this experience.

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