More Time At Sea

Mideast demand will strain flattop fleet in fiscal ’13

Increased global demand and fewer aircraft carriers mean sailors will spend more time at sea and less at home the next two years, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jon Greenert has announced.

The John C. Stennis Carrier Strike Group will deploy in late August — four months ahead of schedule — and will stay out two months longer than scheduled, Pentagon officials said July 16.

Greenert said Navy officials originally planned for the five carrier deployments in fiscal 2013 to average six months and eight days, but those cruises now likely will average eight months and 13 days. And sailors in the carrier fleet will be home only 60 percent of the time, rather than 65 percent.

The reason: Continuing crises in the Middle East are preventing the Navy from winding down its forces in the region, even though operations in Iraq have ended and those in Afghanistan are wrapping up. And demand for a carrier presence elsewhere remains strong, even as the carrier fleet shrinks from 11 ships to 10.

“The supply and the demand is changing at the same time,” said retired Vice Adm. Peter Daly, chief executive officer of the U.S. Naval Institute and a former Fleet Forces deputy commander.

The quick turnaround for Stennis, which will deploy along with the cruiser Mobile Bay, came at the request of U.S. Central Command chief Marine Gen. James Mattis who wanted to maintain two carriers in the region.

Supply and demand

Navy leaders have hoped that the end of operations in Iraq, and of combat in Afghanistan in 2014, would cut the operational tempo, preferably down to maintaining a one-carrier carrier presence in 5th Fleet. The service now maintains a 1.5-carrier presence in the 5th Fleet — two carriers for half of the year, one carrier for the other half.

The service is losing one carrier, Enterprise, which is set for decommissioning in 2013. Two other carriers, the Harry S. Truman and Abraham Lincoln, will be in extended maintenance periods.

So far, two carriers have been affected by the Navy’s new plan. In late June, the Dwight D. Eisenhower Carrier Strike Group left Norfolk, Va., for a nine-month deployment, the longest carrier cruise since 2003.

And then there’s the eight months underway scheduled for Stennis, starting in late summer and ending in March or April.

Stennis deployed early because it had a ready crew and because delays in the Theodore Roosevelt’s overhaul limited the number of available carriers, Greenert said.

When factoring time at sea and at home, the Navy’s figures include only operational carriers, leaving out those in the yards because of refueling, such as Lincoln, which is in transit to Virginia for a refueling and overhaul.

Those figures do not include the George Washington, which is forward-deployed and typically has shorter cruises than other carriers. Moving up Stennis’ deployment ensures two carriers will remain in 5th Fleet, Pentagon spokesman George Little said.

Little on July 16 said “a range of factors” was driving the early deployment, including the crisis in Syria, but would not elaborate.

“This is an extension of capabilities in this particular region,” he said, adding that it’s no secret the Middle East is a contentious region with a “variety of challenges,” but it’s not a response to one particular country or threat.

One of the reasons is the continuing standoff with Iran and Tehran’s threats to close the Strait of Hormuz, through which much of the world’s oil shipping flows. The Navy recently doubled its minesweeping capability in the Persian Gulf as a means of deterring Tehran’s threats to close the vital waterway.

At a June 27 news conference, Greenert said the situation in the Persian Gulf had been “quiet” over the past two months. But on July 15, Iranian parliament leaders renewed threats to close the vital waterway unless sanctions against their country are lifted.

Decisions have not yet been made about any sort of early or long deployments after Stennis finishes its mission in spring of next year, but for now, the Navy is planning on seven-month, seven-day deployments in fiscal 2014, Greenert said.

“The world tends to determine that. There’s a complex situation over there, between the environment with Iran” and Operation Enduring Freedom, Greenert said.

‘Short-term, you can do it’

The U.S. hasn’t fully explained the need to send the Stennis early. But British Defence Secretary Philip Hammond, after meeting with U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, said addressing threats from Iran “is an effort which clearly the United States is leading, and the powerful signal was sent by the decision to order the John Stennis to the Gulf, And we have supporting assets in the Gulf. We will continue to maintain those supporting assets and work closely with the United States and others.”

Other afloat communities are not affected as much as carriers — some not at all. Original plans called for the cruiser fleet to spend 67 percent of fiscal 2013 in their home ports, but now the Navy anticipates that 64 percent will be spent at home. Meanwhile, destroyers will go from 63 percent of the year at home to 62 percent. Amphibs will, as originally planned, spend 58 percent of the year at home. Figures were not available for submarines.

“Short-term, you can do it,” Greenert said.

But it can’t go on forever without making changes and, beyond the Stennis deployment, the Navy may have to recalibrate its deployment, maintenance and training schedules to maintain carrier operations as they are today, Greenert said.

The CNO said there could be a shake-up with the shipyards that support the fleet. Maintenance schedules are carefully choreographed so one ship can pull into the yards as soon as one pulls out. If planned correctly, the Navy can prevent downtime at shipyards, which hurts the industries that fix and upgrade ships. Additionally, good scheduling means ships are never stuck in a holding pattern waiting for another overhaul to finish before beginning their own maintenance, effectively taking them out of the fight just to wait in line.

“If it’s going to be more than just Stennis, if we’ve got to keep two beyond that period, we’ve got another level of complexity on the industrial base,” Greenert said.

Stennis is taking special steps to prepare for its quick turnaround. When its last deployment ended March 2, the strike group was put on an “increased readiness status,” said Rear. Adm. Charles Gaouette, the strike group commander.

After the strike group learned about its early deployment, it began a training regimen tailored to a quick turnaround instead of the typical workup. Depending on the ship, 70 percent to 80 percent of the crew had sailed together before, so leaders crafted “sustainment exercises” designed to strengthen the crew’s weaknesses.

“From what I can tell, from the initial reports, the outcome was pretty positive,” Gaouette said as Stennis completed exercises off the Southern California coast.

Stennis was in strong material condition after its last deployment and does not require significant maintenance or repairs, and its condition is “second to none,” said Capt. Ronald Reis, the ship’s commanding officer.

The command is also boosting its efforts to increase resiliency on the deck plates. Sailors in leadership positions have attended sessions to show them how to identify when their shipmates are getting burned out. Additionally, the command and ombudsman organization have reached out to families.

The early deployment will cause hardships, but sailors appreciate that they now know when they will deploy, said CMC (AW/SW/SS) Stanley Jewett, the carrier’s senior enlisted sailor.

But the change in plans for Stennis is indicative that once-predictable deployment schedules will knuckleball.

“Clearly, we’ve changed from an environment when you could really plan and count on a fairly stable carrier schedule. I think that in the short term, or maybe permanently, those days are gone,” Daly said.

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