Author : Abhijit Singh

Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Apr 03, 2020
COVID-19 and maritime operations Earlier this week, the U.S. Navy announced the evacuation of the crew of aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt after its Commanding Officer sent an urgent message requesting assistance in controlling a COVID-19 outbreak aboard his ship. In a four page letter that navy officials termed “extraordinary”, Capt. Brett Crozier urged higher authorities to allow quarantining and isolation of infected sailors ashore. With at least 36 personnel aboard the ship having contracted the corona virus, Crozier wants his entire crew of 5,000 to be tested at an ashore facility in Guam. Days earlier, the USS Boxer, an amphibious assault ship had reported its first case of corona virus, leading to the confinement of 80 senior enlisted sailors and officers in a small room on the ship. With rising infections on at least three frontline warships, the US navy is besieged with anxiety. Fears of a rapid spread of the epidemic among tightly packed crews have led commanders to reduce the number of mass gatherings and implement a strict distancing protocol. The US Navy isn’t the only one taking protective measures. Other navies too have modified their template of operations to reduce crew exposures, including work from home arrangements, reduced deployments overseas and even scaling down port visits abroad. The Indian navy, which cancelled the MILAN exercises earlier as a precautionary measure, has announced a series of steps to combat the virus. Indian naval ships have been asked to minimise port calls at foreign shores, and commanders are instituting measures for the continuous medical monitoring of sailors. To ensure that logistics support isn’t interrupted and critical fuel supply maintained, warships are being replenished in international waters using other Indian naval ships. Meanwhile, efforts are on to prepare quarantine facilities at Mumbai, Vizag and Kochi to meet any emergencies. Still, the risk of a mass epidemic remains high. By their essential design, naval platforms are highly vulnerable to an outbreak of disease. With tight corridors, low ceilings and enclosed spaces, a warship does not lend itself well to “social distancing”. Most naval platforms have narrow passage-ways with hatch covers and doors that need constant opening and closing to enable the movement of personnel. Sailors are known to ‘hot-bunk’ (a practice of using sleeping spaces in rotation), and even share lockers and storage spaces. Dining too is in confined areas, with sailors having cafeteria-style meals on tables that are packed with diners sitting close to one another. These are all perfect conditions for the spread of infection. Submarines face an even more daunting proposition. As retired French Navy admiral Dominique Salles noted last week, a nuclear submarine in the depths of the oceans is unlikely to be aware of the spread of the virus. With patrols that last eight to ten weeks underwater, a nuclear submarine isn’t usually informed of any events that might take its focus away from the deterrence mission. Even one infected sailor on a sub that sailed out in February end or the beginning of March (when infections outside China began rapidly expanding) could potentially cause havoc among the crew. Salles’ would know, for he commanded four French nuclear submarines in the 2000s. Beyond naval operations, container trade and the marine cargo sector have been hit badly by the virus. The container shipping business is facing disruption on a scale not seen in decades - its vulnerability painfully exposed by the epidemic. Since January, there has been a marked decline in the number of ships calling on many ports, including in Europe and China. At Shanghai and Yangshang the number of port calls are said to have reduced by a fifth. The story isn’t much different at other major ports across the world, with port authorities insisting on a fourteen day quarantine period for vessels arriving from or transiting through China. A record number of factory closures has meant a huge decline in cargo. Not surprisingly, established trade routes are reporting fewer sailings. Many carrier operations on the Europe-Asia and the US-Asia Pacific route have been cancelled, resulting in a drastic drop in capacity. Danish maritime giant, Maersk, warned last week that the virus outbreak could seriously impact earnings. With its wide exposure to container shipping and port terminals, the shipping company is cutting sailing on the Europe-Asia route. But officials say a drop in volumes to and from China would translate into massive financial losses. Less reported upon, but equally significant is COVID-19’s impact on shipbuilding. There are reports of slow pace of construction in naval and civilian yards and a record number of workers and engineers falling sick. A number of shipyards have issued force majeure declarations following the spread of the virus, seeking extensions to the delivery dates under their contracts. Some, such as Italian shipbuilding firm Fincantieri have suspended operations temporarily. With huge staffing and supply shortages, shipbuilders are moving to revise work plans and delay delivery deadlines. Many are hoping that the present downturn is temporary, and that the container, dry bulk and tanker markets would see a return to ‘business-as-usual’ over the course of the next couple of months. Even so, the virus is impacting demand and supply dynamics in ways that seemed unimaginable a few weeks earlier. With tanker rates falling dramatically in past weeks – a virus-led drop combined with the oil price war – and a precipitous decline in the maritime charter market, mariners are struggling to stay optimistic. Under the circumstances, they can only hope things don’t get caught up in a negative spiral.
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Abhijit Singh

Abhijit Singh

A former naval officer Abhijit Singh Senior Fellow heads the Maritime Policy Initiative at ORF. A maritime professional with specialist and command experience in front-line ...

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