Analysts: Pace of campaign could strain Navy forces

By Corinne Reilly
The Virginian-Pilot

Although U.S. airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria are expected to continue for a long time, the volume will level off to a point that they can be sustained without a swell of extra ships or personnel, according to defense officials and analysts.

But the effort still could take a heavy toll on an already taxed U.S. Navy, in the form of longer deployments and greater maintenance strains.

The question of what will be required to pursue American goals in Syria and Iraq is especially significant for Hampton Roads, whose military ships and aircraft – both Navy and Air Force – have played a significant role so far.

At least three Norfolk-based ships have taken part in the strikes: the aircraft carrier George H.W. Bush, which had been supporting operations in Afghanistan before moving to the Arabian Gulf to launch aircraft to strike in Iraq and later Syria; the amphibious assault ship Bataan, which has launched Marine Corps Harrier jets to strike in Iraq; and the guided missile destroyer Arleigh Burke, which helped fire Tomahawk cruise missiles into Syria from the Red Sea.

Besides the Bush and the Arleigh Burke, F-22 Raptors from Langley Air Force Base in Hampton took part in this week’s large opening wave of strikes into Syria. It was the aircraft’s first use in combat after decades of development. A handful of Arab nations also participated, predominantly Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, where the local F-22s are deployed.

Defense officials said they expect the Syria strikes will settle into a lower-intensity tempo similar to what has been taking place in Iraq for the past two months. They predicted there will be ebb and flow, as there has been in Iraq, where U.S. airstrikes have been punctuated by larger operations, such as the one that helped Kurdish and Iraqi forces retake the Mosul dam from Islamic State fighters.

“It’s understandable that a target-rich environment will become less rich over time as you continue to hit targets,” Rear Adm. John Kirby, the Pentagon press secretary, told reporters Thursday. “But they will react. You have to expect that they’re going to react, and we’re going to react right along with them.”

Kirby added: “This is not, by a long stretch, over.”

Navy officials and observers noted that this week’s operations relied only on ships and aircraft that were already in the region; no buildup of U.S. forces was required. With sustained strikes that are lower in volume, that’s likely to remain the case, said Karl Mueller, a senior political scientist with the RAND Corporation who specializes in military and national security strategy.

Mueller said he expects Navy deployments to the region won’t escalate dramatically.

“I’d be surprised if it ramped up to the level of deploying another carrier, for example,” he said.

Peter Daly, head of the U.S. Naval Institute, gave a similar assessment.

“The projection is that the continuous presence of one (carrier) will be enough,” said Daly, a retired Navy vice admiral.

But that doesn’t mean a lasting campaign won’t affect the Navy significantly, he said.

The service already has stretched deployments well beyond the old norm of six months, to eight and nine months or longer. Daly said tours could be lengthened even more to ensure there are no gaps in coverage in the region.

“I think with this heavier demand, it’s going to be unforgiving,” he said.

And for pilots and certain sailors aboard involved ships, he said, the job is harder now.

The crew of the Bush, which left Norfolk in February, had been supporting operations in a conflict that is winding down. “Now the pace is quickening,” Daly said.

More broadly, Daly said, already strained maintenance schedules will become more taxed.

The coming year was planned to be a big one for maintenance, he said, and that could prove difficult.

Pilot reporter Mike Hixenbaugh contributed to this story.

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