To borrow a well-worn military cliché, the U.S. Navy’s response to the fast-evolving COVID-19 pandemic of the past year was akin to building a fighter jet while flying it.
The sea service wasn’t alone, as the novel coronavirus forced all of society’s sectors to adapt fast.
But hectic times force innovation, and several changes the U.S. Navy made in the past year will likely remain with the sea service long after COVID-19 has faded from such prominence in our lives.
From afloat ship training to teleworking, the historic public health crisis appears likely to fundamentally change how the Navy does business on several fronts.
Working from home had long been something that the Navy, and the military in general, had struggled to do properly, but the pandemic changed that, Navy leaders told lawmakers during a Senate hearing late last year.
“We have finally busted through the fact (that) … you’ve got to form up in front of the flagpole every morning to get credit for actually being on the job,” then-Navy Secretary Kenneth Braithwaite told senators in December. “We can do work from afar. We can be productive.”
The fact that teleworking is now a practical reality is prompting a rethink by the Navy regarding how much office space it really needs.
Navy officials say an assessment of such needs is ongoing and will be sent up the chain later this year.
But Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday told the same Senate hearing last year that the Navy could “recoup over $100 million a year in spaces that we just don’t need.”
“And so another byproduct has been … a better realization of what’s core and what’s non-core in terms of what we really need to be focused on and working on, and how we use that teleworking force,” Gilday said.
The Defense Department in general scrambled to roll out nearly 1 million new remote user accounts in April 2020 alone, including roughly 250,000 in one day, Navy Times’ sister publication, C4ISR, reported last year.
The Pentagon fast-tracked IT projects that once took years, shrinking timelines down to mere days or months, increasing network capacity and improving cyber security in the process.
“Capabilities that would have taken us … years to field have been accelerated by the Secretary of Defense to weeks or months,” Gilday told lawmakers last year. “That has put us in a much better place.”
While the pandemic led to longer deployments for ships and subs, and onerous pre-deployment quarantines that extended time away from home for sailors across the fleet, it also sparked changes to how at-sea training is conducted.
A program first piloted by Afloat Training Group Norfolk last spring and since adopted by fleets on both coasts has led to ships’ crews getting trained and ready to take on fleet taskings more quickly, officials said.
Previously, such at-sea training would be spread out over several underway periods, but the new model maximizes uninterrupted training stints and involves training teams hopping between multiple ships, staying at sea and reducing the risk of training teams contracting COVID while returning to port in between sessions.
“We’ve said, ‘well, jeez, why are we just in a … kind of a single production line with ships to get trained and qualified?’” Braithwaite told lawmakers last year. “Why can’t I do that with six ships at once … get a lot more out of the trainers, become a lot more efficient and actually increase the number of ships that I’m generating … to present to the Secretary of Defense to use out there at sea?”
“I think overall, (the pandemic) caused everybody to think a little bit more innovatively and to be a little bit more efficient in terms of how they think about using their time,” he added.
Geoff is a senior staff reporter for Military Times, focusing on the Navy. He covered Iraq and Afghanistan extensively and was most recently a reporter at the Chicago Tribune. He welcomes any and all kinds of tips at email@example.com.