Commentary: To Address Overseas Presence Gaps, Permanently Base Aircraft Carrier at Souda Bay

By Constance Baroudos

Since the US Navy aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt departed from the Middle East for its home port in October, US Central Command (CENTCOM) has been waging Operation Inherent Resolve against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) without the benefit of an aircraft carrier. Even though the Navy considers a forward presence as its core responsibility, the fleet has strained to fulfill missions in CENTCOM and in the Asia-Pacific region.

The US should permanently base an aircraft carrier in the Mediterranean to quickly respond to crises in the Middle East, North Africa and the Arabian Gulf while seeking to modify the Optimized Fleet Response Plan (OFRP) that has resulted in overseas presence gaps.

In January 2014, the OFRP was rolled out to keep carrier strike groups (CSG) from unexpected, long deployments and to allow time for ship maintenance. In practice, the OFRP ties an aircraft carrier to the guided-missile cruisers and destroyers deployed with it. This means the entire battle group must endure a 36-month cycle of maintenance, training, deployment and sustainment together.

While the plan seeks predictability for the lives of sailors and maintainers, Rear Adm. Richard Berkey, director of fleet maintenance for US Fleet Forces, has pointed out the sustainment phase needs more financial resources for training and personnel to keep sailors trained and proficient.

Commander of Naval Air Forces Vice Adm. Mike Shoemaker highlighted that historically, the Navy has not funded CSGs to maintain a high level of readiness at their home ports, five months being the longest. This means CSGs may lose their readiness and qualifications, unable to respond to threats quickly when needed.

Combatant commanders have advocated against the OFRP, but the Joint Chiefs of Staff remain supportive and intend to stick to the model — the US Navy is currently working on a similar plan for the Amphibious Ready Groups that carry Marine Expeditionary Units around the globe.

The Navy has sometimes extended deployments by two to three months to avoid overseas presence gaps, but even this tactic fails at times. After the Roosevelt left the Middle East in October, a two-month overseas carrier presence gap resulted since its replacement, the aircraft carrier Harry S. Truman, is scheduled to arrive in mid-December.

A symbol of American power departed with the Roosevelt, which was responsible for 1,812 combat sorties, totaling 10,618 combat flight hours and expending 1,085 precision-guided munitions. With tensions rising in the Mediterranean and Middle East, America cannot afford to lose carrier power and forward presence for extended periods of time. Such gaps will become more common in 2016 if not addressed by Navy leadership and Congress.

The US should permanently base an aircraft carrier in the Mediterranean to reinforce allies’ perception of American might, deter potential adversaries and provide more stability in the region. One excellent location to do so is at Souda Bay, located on the Greek island of Crete. A permanent aircraft carrier would eliminate overseas presence gaps and provide a quick response to crises in the Middle East, North Africa and the Arabian Gulf.

There are also several facilities in and near Souda Bay, such as the NATO Maritime Interdiction Operations Training Center and the NATO Missile Firing Installation, for troops to train with allies and partners during deployment.

A Congressional Budget Office report states that basing more ships and crews overseas will boost overseas operations with a smaller budget, even after more money is spent on maintenance, personnel and operating more ships to rotate crews. Permanently basing an aircraft carrier at Souda Bay would save much time and money as the Navy struggles to afford increasing its total number of ships with an estimated cost well above the annual Navy budget average.

Even though the increase in conflict in the eastern Mediterranean and Middle East calls for a stronger US presence, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson, has publicly stated there is no plan to increase scarce naval resources. This means NATO needs to boost military power relations with existing members to deter further aggression in the region while adjustments to the OFRP are sought to eliminate overseas carrier gaps.

Greece is one example of a member nation that could permanently base an aircraft carrier at Souda Bay to allow the Navy to project power into the Middle East and North Africa, allowing for a quicker response in the region while saving time and money.

Constance Baroudos is a policy analyst and program director at the Lexington Institute.

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