Some Nuclear Submarine Crews May Not Even Know About the Pandemic

Kyle Mizokami
Photo credit: OLGA MALTSEVA - Getty Images

From Popular Mechanics

  • Warship crews—from aircraft carriers to submarines—are falling victim to COVID-19.
  • The virus is sidelining entire ships, including those from the Russian, Dutch, and U.S. navies while some submarine crews may not know of the pandemic at all.
  • In a rare move, a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier captain has appealed to the media to save his crew.

The COVID-19 coronavirus is starting to have a major impact on navies of the world, as ship crews worldwide are testing positive for the virus. In other cases, ships exposed to a virus carrier have been locked down under quarantine.

On the flip side, a former nuclear submarine commander with the French Navy says the country’s strategic nuclear submarine crews are probably unaware the pandemic is taking place.

Since the viruses’ detection in December 2019, the COVID-19 virus has quickly spread across the globe, with 826,222 infections recorded worldwide. It’s hard to imagine a place now where the pandemic never happened, and where people are unaware it is taking place. Thanks to nuclear weapons, that place does exist: aboard nuclear-missile carrying submarines carrying out their patrols worldwide.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Retired French Navy admiral Dominique Salles, who commanded his country’s four nuclear missile submarines in the 2000s, said that French crews currently on patrol would be completely unaware of the viruses’ spread. The ships typically spend 60-70 days at a stretch and are kept uninformed of such events in order to keep them focused on the nuclear deterrence mission.

It’s unclear whether or not U.S. nuclear missile submarine crews are similarly uninformed of the pandemic. The U.S. Navy operates fourteen Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines, with eight or nine normally at sea and four or five on “hard alert,” which means they are on station and ready to fulfill their mission. Ohio-class subs typically spend 70 days at a time at sea.

Photo credit: Smith Collection/Gado - Getty Images

Meanwhile, sailors on two U.S. Navy nuclear-powered aircraft carriers, USS Ronald Reagan and USS Theodore Roosevelt, have tested positive for COVID-19. USS Reagan, based at Yokosuka, Japan, reported two cases last week.

The situation on USS Roosevelt is more severe, where the virus was detected after a recent visit to Vietnam. The Navy directed Roosevelt to dock in Guam, where the service announced personnel would be tested for the virus. Today, in a letter obtained by The San Francisco Chronicle, the ship’s captain warned the ship’s quarters were inadequate for quarantining infected sailors and urged his chain of command to offload the sick. “Keeping over 4,000 young men and women on board the TR is an unnecessary risk and breaks faith with those Sailors entrusted to our care,” Captain Brett Crozier wrote.

Crozier warned that Navy inaction could lead to sailors dying of the disease. “We are not at war. Sailors do not need to die. If we do not act now, we are failing to properly take care of our most trusted asset, our Sailors."

Roosevelt, according to the Chronicle, now has between 150 to 200 individuals who have tested positive for the coronavirus, or about 3-5 percent of the entire crew.

Photo credit: Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Josh Bennett

Meanwhile, some ships have been prevented from deploying due to sick sailors or sailors exposed to COVID-19 carriers. According to the Barents Observer, the 110-person crew of the Russian Navy cruise missile submarine Orel is under quarantine after a civilian infected with the virus boarded the ship on a “business matter.”

The Dutch submarine attack submarine HMNLS Dolphin has eight sailors (of a total crew of 58) that have tested positive for the coronavirus, and the submarine is sailing home to the Netherlands early.

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