Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Carrier Deployment Issues Impact ~20,000 Sailors

The announcement that the USS Nimitz (CVN 68) and the USS Harry S. Truman (CVN 75) will have their deployments extended by two months is "profound," according to Rear Adm. John Miller, the Nimitz strike group commander. I think his reaction is well stated.

Navy Times covered the initial news report.

Navy officials on Friday extended the deployments for two aircraft carrier strike groups – Nimitz and Harry S. Truman – by nearly two months each to cover the expected gap in carrier coverage caused by shipyard delays in the maintenance overhaul of the carrier Enterprise.

Each deployment will run just under eight months, U.S. Pacific Fleet officials in Hawaii and U.S. Fleet Forces Command officials in Virginia announced in a joint statement. “The Navy remains committed to its general policy of maintaining deployment lengths to manage personnel tempo as essential components of force readiness,” officials said.

The short-notice shift in the carriers’ schedules includes an earlier departure of the Norfolk, Va.-based Dwight D. Eisenhower carrier strike group, which will leave on its next deployment “a few days earlier,” said Cmdr. Phil Rosi, a Fleet Forces Command spokesman, on Friday afternoon.

Truman, which is preparing to deploy with its strike group, will deploy from its Norfolk berth later than planned for its scheduled next deployment in 2010, Rosi said. He declined to specify the length of that delay before the carrier will deploy from its Norfolk berth.
Wow. The Navy is talking about shifting schedules for three different Carrier Strike Groups, which impacts close to 18,000 sailors - not to mention their families. I'm having a hard time believing that the USS Enterprise (CVN 65) shipyard delay of 4 months can possibly have that kind of profound impact alone, and at the same time the Secretary of Defense is recommending a reduction in aircraft carriers from 11 to 10.. or fewer? The key point to be made here is that all of this is being done to support the 5th Fleet requirement of having an aircraft carrier support the war in Afghanistan - meaning this major change is essentially the first major Afghanistan war requirement on the Navy since 2001.

If you think of each CSG consisting of 5-6 ships and 6500 sailors, the impact can approach 20,000 sailors when deployment times change for 3 different strike groups.

The timing is noteworthy. The Navy has known about this for awhile. We have consistently been told of the cost increases to the work being done on USS Enterprise (CVN 65), so the Navy has known about the delay. The reason we don't find out until now is because the Navy was waiting until both the Senate and the House had completed their FY2010 bills, which includes a provision for the early retirement of the USS Enterprise (CVN 65). After all, this is exactly the kind of unexpected event lawmakers asked Navy folks under oath about, the "what if.." we need that 11th carrier question. The Navy's reply was, essentially 'don't worry about it, we got it covered.' Clearly...

It is not unreasonable that the ~48 year old Enterprise would run into issues in a major maintenance period. Those types of problems can pop up in very old ships like Enterprise. I also don't think this event makes a case against the early retirement of Enterprise. If anything, it validates the decision because Enterprise is clearly too old and too expensive to keep on life support. What this issue does do though is directly raise questions about how many aircraft carriers the Navy needs to operate, and whether numbers - and not cost - needs to be a more significant factor in aircraft carrier planning. ADM Roughead is on record saying 11, while Gates is saying 10. Congress is going to have to decide, because 11 only happens with more money.

There are at least two alternatives that need to be looked at. The first is the ever popular but incredibly expensive option of moving to smaller carriers, what some like to call a mix. Tough call because this option is not a replacement for CVNs, simply an augmentation and would need to be part of a broader consideration to fleet design. That is not easy for the Navy today due to the lack of vision in fleet design.

The other option would be for the Navy to change the way they operate today. The plan behind the reduction to 10 aircraft carriers suggests that 10 is the minimum number necessary for the Navy to maintain 2 aircraft carriers forward deployed; one to 7th Fleet in the Pacific and one to 5th Fleet in the Middle East and Indian Ocean. We'll be like the Navy, and avoid the word "attrition."

The question is, how do you replace the influence of a CVN? I think there are a couple of different ways. One approach would be to build an organizational grouping around a LHA(R), and build 4 LHA(R)s to maintain one forward deployed. Keep in mind that I believe this option would be best done by reducing the number of ESGs to 8, but increasing the ESG to 4 ships (5 ships for the forward deployed ARG). In other words, if the Marine Corps requirement is 33 amphibious ships, then the future amphibious force should be 8 LHDs and 25 LPD-17s. On top of that the LHA(R) contributes airpower, for either the Marines or the Navy but always with the F-35B version. It isn't a full aircraft carrier, but it might be enough for supporting operations like Afghanistan if the F-35B is reliable.

Another option would be building the sometimes proposed 22,000 ton ballistic missile defense battleship. A ship with rebust BMD capabilities might be a very effective way conduct naval presence operations at the high end in the Pacific as opposed to a CVN, and may prove to be a better alternative than the CVN for the Navy in responding to the ballistic missile threat globally when a country begins to act belligerent towards its neighbors. A CVN is clearly an offensive force, while a BMD battleship could be seen from allies as a defensive platform.

A more widely discussed option is to get optimized in Green water for regional influence. It is unlikely that in my lifetime, the arrival of a LCS in support of a friendly nation is going to be very influential politically. If Russia and Georgia were to get into a political dispute, the arrival of LCS-1 and LCS-2 in support of Georgia isn't going to influence the Black Sea Fleet much. However, what if the Navy pulled into the Black Sea with 4 LCS and 16 small corvettes, each armed with 4-8 ASMs? Do you realize that if the corvettes were less than 1000 tons, the 20 ships would fall under the 30,000 tons in article 2 of the Montreux Convention. This is one example where numerous smaller ships in the littoral can have a significant influence on an area without an aircraft carrier strike group.

The development of these types of organizations for Africa and South America may be the way the Navy can avoid the pitfalls of reducing aircraft carriers to 10. Regardless, this is a conversation that Congress clearly needs to have with the Navy, because even with 11 aircraft carriers the lives of 18,000 sailors and their families are being adjusted to support the loss of just the USS Enterprise (CVN 65) for only 4 months to maintenance.

For those interested in the status of US aircraft carriers:
Norfolk, Virginia
USS Enterprise (CVN 65) - drydock until November 2009
USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN 69) - late 2009 deployment
USS Carl Vinson (CVN 70) - unavailable until at least November 2009
USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71) - unavailable until September 2012
USS Harry S. Truman (CVN 75) - Early 2010 deployment
USS George H.W. Bush (CVN 77) - Unavailable until at least early 2011

San Diego, California
USS Nimitz (CVN 68) - Deployed July 31, 2009
USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76) - Deployed May 28, 2009

Bremerton, Washington
USS John C. Stennis (CVN 74) - Returned from deployment July 10, 2009

Everett, Washington
USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN 72) Unavailable until early 2010

Yokosuka, Japan
USS George Washington (CVN 73) - Returned from summer deployment September 3, 2009

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