The Pentagon is struggling to stay ahead of the widening coronavirus pandemic as early missteps start piling up, a scattershot response sows confusion and the Navy is forced to sideline an aircraft carrier.

The USS Theodore Roosevelt, a 5,000-person aircraft carrier meant to be patrolling the Pacific and South China Sea, is instead sitting dockside in Guam indefinitely as the number of infected sailors rises daily. Infections started cropping up after an early March port call in Vietnam, which Pentagon leaders say had about 16 known virus cases at the time.

Defense Secretary Mark Esper says he’s leaving key decisions about how to address the outbreak to local commanders. But as infections mount and more warriors are sidelined, Pentagon leaders will face difficult questions about how to stay fully ready to confront rivals from North Korea to Iran and how to signal unflagging resolve to such adversaries.

“The military is torn between its need to maintain operations, which cannot be done with ‘social distancing,’ and the need to restrict interactions to inhibit infections,” said Mark Cancian, a military analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington who’s a retired Marine Corps colonel. “It has still not figured out how to strike that balance.”

Marine Buzz Cuts
The piecemeal approach means that, in some cases, basic precautions that prevent troops from being put at risk are being ignored. Across the U.S., civilian barbers are still driving onto military bases to give Marines buzz cuts. That was a decision the top Marine struggled to explain at a news briefing Thursday.

“Everybody’s still getting their heads shaved as long as the barbers come to work,” said General David Berger, the Marine Corps commandant. “Things like grooming standards -- barber shops in one area may be open, and in another base they may be closed. So we very much trust the leaders to make those calls, and we’ve given them the latitude to waive requirements where it’s not practical to meet them.”

As of Friday, the Pentagon said there have been 309 confirmed cases of coronavirus among active military personnel, a small fraction of the force. But the case of the USS Roosevelt encapsulates how quickly a seemingly minor problem can hamper one of the world’s biggest warships.

After the first three sailors on the carrier were evacuated, Acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly projected confidence about the ship’s status, saying it would continue sailing.

“This is an example of our ability to keep our ships deployed at sea, underway even with active Covid-19 cases,” Modly said March 24. But two days later, the carrier was sidelined indefinitely in Guam as the Navy tries to contain the outbreak.

Emma Moore, a researcher on military and veterans issues at the Center for a New American Security, said the virus outbreak has resulted in some “cringe-worthy” decisions being made as the military sorts out which personnel and missions are more essential than others.

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