Coronavirus Will Undercut Navy Recruitment

May 26, 2020
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In 1976, Bates Advertising unveiled a new Navy slogan to accompany a series of recruiting commercials. Television spots ran showing sailors disembarking in Hong Kong, exploring their exotic sites before declaring, “Navy. It’s not just a job, it’s an adventure.” Posters and magazine advertisements with the slogan explained, “In the Navy, a job means more than a good paycheck. It means the opportunity to see places like Italy, Spain, Morocco, Hong Kong, the Philippines, and Hawaii.” That promotion ran for 12 years. A 1986 Navy recruitment commercial showed sailors enjoying traditional tea in Japan with the slogan, “Live the Adventure.”

Of course, the ability to visit foreign cities is not the Navy’s only selling point. Its advertisements and recruitment strategies also emphasize a meaningful job, training, and patriotism. The GI Bill is hugely important to enlisted and officers both. But the ability to travel—often to multiple countries in a single deployment—has always been a Navy selling point.

Officers and enlisted who served in the years prior to the September 11, 2001 terror attacks often reminiscence about Navy cruises with port calls every two or three weeks across the Mediterranean, South Pacific, Southeast Asia, or Latin America. Younger pilots and sailors are jealous: they may get only three port calls over the course of seven to nine months, and when these are repeatedly Djibouti, Jebel Ali, or Bahrain, they begin after time to lose their luster. While successive chiefs of Naval Operations have sought to reduce time spent in the Fifth Fleet's area of operations, events in the Middle East—be it the Yemeni civil war or, more recently, the bluster following Qods Force General Qassem Soleimani’s death—have conspired to divert ships from countering Russian inroads in the Atlantic or Chinese aggression beyond the South China Sea and the variety of ports which servicemen can see along the way. Add into that mix the COVID-19 crisis and the inevitable changes in practice, and it seems increasingly likely that sailors on future deployments will be lucky to see anything more than a warm beer on a foreign pier.

Secretary of Defense Mark Esper reacted to the pandemic by issuing a “stop movement” order. This was a necessary if temporary, inconvenience. As the immediate crisis from the pandemic passes, the military will resume its normal movements, albeit with caution. For the Army and Air Force, such caution will be geared to the individual; those suspected of suffering from the coronavirus can be more easily isolated were stationed or returned home. Such precautions will never be so easy in the Navy: Most enlisted share berthing with several dozen colleagues and even officers and pilots can have two or three roommates. Those senior enough to have single staterooms still work in close quarters. Ward rooms and heads have ample supplies of hand sanitizers, but hundreds pass through each in a day. Passageways are narrow and ladders impossible to clean after each use. Indeed, long before the coronavirus hit, the Navy waged a war of attrition against the ‘crud’ waylaying sailors.

No one joins the military for an easy life, but Navy life is about to get far harder compared to other services. After coronavirus outbreaks aboard the USS Boxer, the USS Theodore Roosevelt, and USS Kidd, the Navy will be extremely cautious about how it lets sailors and others on and off ships. Rather than end liberty hours before a ship’s deployment, personnel will likely need to report to their ship at least 14 days before it departs. For former Defense Secretary James Mattis’ policy to keep deployments staggered and unpredictable to be upheld, sailors will need to live in quarantined facilities and away from their families even when a ship capable of deploying is in port. Even then, it may not be possible to keep ships completely safe. Land-based pilots and crew, staff COD [Carrier Onboard Delivery] flights to bring mail, emergency supplies, and those joining underway, and to evacuate those granted emergency leave. Marines who exercise with partner nations might also mandate quarantine for ships returning to port. Manning the rails and then waiting weeks to disembark will be demoralizing.

Indeed, Chief of Naval Operations ADM Michael Gilday suggested as much when he addressed the fleet on May 7, 2020. “While I know we are asking a lot of our Sailors and families right now, with measures such as extended deployments and pre-underway Restriction of Movement periods, these sacrifices are necessary to maintain a healthy force around the world,” he wrote.

Gone are morale-boosting tiger cruises when sailors’ children are allowed to join for the final leg home, and gone are the VIP tours and media programs which the Navy utilized to bolster its image, explain its function, and indirectly help with recruitment.

There will always be those who seek a Navy career for a variety of reasons: ranging from family legacy to their specific field of expertise. But for many others who enter a recruiting station or have a choice of ROTC programs, they seek both to join the military and receive the benefits of service, but also to enjoy a quality of life as they do so. The Army and Air Force will be able to maintain their promises, but the coronavirus may already have stripped away many of the Navy recruiters’ top selling points.

Ships and platforms garner headlines, but personnel remain the backbone of the military. Whether the Navy can keep up with its needs in the post-coronavirus world seems increasingly doubtful.

Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

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