For the crew of the aging carrier Dwight D. Eisenhower, their second deployment in a year is off to a troubling start, and they haven’t even formally deployed yet.
As the 43-year-old workhorse steams off the East Coast conducting pre-deployment operations, a water system broke down recently, cutting laundry service and limiting crew access to potable water to the first 10 minutes of every hour.
Garbage was piling up on the aft mess decks — sailors call it an “afloat Mount Trashmore”— because the ship didn’t have enough water to run dishwashers and the trash-disposal facilities couldn’t keep up with the volume of plasticware refuse created at each meal for the 5,000-person crew, Navy Times has learned.
As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, an unspecified number of shipmates have had to be flown off the carrier after testing positive, despite a two-week isolation phase that aimed to create what the brass called a “COVID-free bubble” that began right after Christmas.
Ike’s sailors were not prioritized to receive the coronavirus vaccine before shipping out.
The water shortages onboard have since been fixed, and the carrier and strike group leadership insist that such issues inevitably arise with such a complex platform.
The pace of operations and Big Navy’s COVID suppression measures are placing added stress and strain upon sailors and raising questions in some circles about retention and the material readiness of Navy ships, compounding issues that existed well before the pandemic.
But these problems come early in what could be a very long deployment, one kicking off just a few months after the Ike got home in August from a record-breaking cruise, a trip that was made tougher without port calls due to COVID.
An F/A-18E Super Hornet with Strike Fighter Squadron 131 prepares to take off from the aircraft carrier Dwight D. Eisenhower Jan. 14. (MCSN Orion K. Shotton/Navy)
The men and women aboard Ike endured a record 205 continuous days at sea last year, a dubious distinction soon broken by the warship Stout.
Now, the ship and its crew are beginning a “double pump” deployment without being afforded the extensive maintenance overhaul called for by the Navy’s own readiness cycle rules. And although Navy leaders are confident that any mechanical problems can be overcome, some service officials say privately they worry how such issues will weigh on a crew already overburdened not only with a back-to-back deployment, but one made longer and more difficult by the pandemic and the confinement to the ship.
In some ways, the situation aboard the Ike is a microcosm of similar problems across the Navy.
In an interview Sunday with Navy Times, service officials were reluctant to say whether such breakdowns could have been avoided had the Eisenhower received proper maintenance time.
Rear Adm. Scott Robertson, the commanding officer of Ike’s Carrier Strike Group 2, said that things break down on complex carriers and that he hadn’t “detected any kind of increase here in us being not able to maintain our system.”
“These things happen,” he said.
Still, sailors tell Navy Times that such travails are not new for the Ike and similar problems were a factor during last year’s deployment.
A senior officer who made the deployment with Ike in 2020 said current problems on the carrier— relayed to Navy Times by crew members last week — appear to be of the same ilk as problems Ike dealt with last year, including issues with the potable water system that led to water restrictions.
Issues with the aircraft elevators, which are essential for flight operations, were not uncommon, though Ike spokesman Lt. Cmdr. Shawn Eklund insisted there has been no impact on the ship’s ability to fulfill its mission and that all the elevators on Ike are now working.
Then-Aviation Structural Mechanic 2nd Class Brayten Tschoepe mans the rails as the aircraft carrier Dwight D. Eisenhower returns to Naval Station Norfolk in August. (Navy)
The senior officer, who requested anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to speak on the issue, said he worries about mechanical problems impacting Ike’s reliability. While such issues don’t amount to a crisis individually, the totality of the problems raise concerns.
“It’s not hyperbole to say that I’d genuinely be concerned about that carrier getting stuck on the other side of the world, or at the very least needing extensive and costly repairs in a foreign port,” the senior officer said.
Some of the equipment failures on Ike in 2020 impacted the crew in demoralizing ways. For example, a wastewater pipe running through female sleeping quarters ruptured “multiple times” during the deployment, pumping “several inches of shit-water on the deck,” the officer said.
U.S. 2nd Fleet officials insist there is nothing mechanically wrong with the Eisenhower that would prevent it from deploying and that crews have since repaired the distilling units for the potable water system that were responsible for the water restrictions.
Senior officials who spoke to Navy Times on background acknowledged that the carrier has seen its share of problems, but added that Ike is an old ship and those kinds of things, however unfortunate, are not uncommon.
Capt. Paul Campagna, the Ike’s commanding officer, said in an interview Sunday that the water shortage lasted roughly 36 hours.
“There was a little concern about what was going on,” he said. “Ultimately, it was a very quick turnaround time and we’re back to full-mission capability right now.”
Campagna said “unscheduled maintenance” — like repairing the ship’s water system — is the type of thing that happens.
“In the course of being out here … sometimes, we have to do some unscheduled maintenance,” he said. “I’m really proud of the sailors who worked so hard to get those systems fixed. Just a great accomplishment all the way around.”
Asked Sunday whether such breakdowns would have been avoided had the Ike been given proper time for maintenance and not double pumped, Campagna, a pilot, likened the ship’s systems to how jets don’t run as well if they’re sitting idle for long periods of time.
Ike just got back, but she’s turning right back around.
“The equipment works better when it’s being operated,” he said.
In a January 16 email to the crew obtained by Navy Times, Ike’s supply officer, Cmdr. Andrew Henwood, warned sailors that they could only use drinking water for the first 10 minutes of every hour, adding that water, juice, soda and ice machines aren’t available “when potable water is secured.” The officer also noted that laundry service was stopped “until further notice.”
While food service was not expected to be impacted, Henwood said his “largest concern” was the “Afloat Mount Trashmore,” mounds of garbage piling up in the aft mess decks that were “a function of the reliance on paper products and the creation of trash exceeding the processing capacity of our Trash Rooms.”
“Our ENG teammates are aggressively working with us to burn through the backlog … huge thanks for their effort,” Henwood added.
Until the ship could use its sculleries, or dishwashing facilities, “expect build up to continue,” he wrote.
The senior officer who spoke to Navy Times said the trash issue was a problem on the 2020 deployment as well.
“It smells awful, and I have to believe it’s some kind of a fire hazard,” the officer said, adding he worried it was also a potential health hazard to have bags of food waste pile up.
Ecklund, the Ike spokesman, said in a Jan. 21 email that “it is not uncommon during heavy operations and maintenance for a ship to temporarily limit water consumption so that we can launch and recover aircraft.”
Steam powers the carrier’s catapult system for launching fighter jets.
“Even with limits on potable water, the crew still had access for basic needs, including showers, drinking water and food prep,” Ecklund said.
Robertson, the Carrier Strike Group 2 commander, emphasized Sunday that Ike’s ability to carry out its mission had not been impacted by the recent issues.
“We’re out here doing high op tempo operations right now,” he said. “In fact, today, we’re launching 90 airplanes — or 90 sorties today — to meet the exercise requirements to get our simulated adversary out here.”
Sailors perform maintenance Wednesday on an MH-60R Sea Hawk, attached to Helicopter Maritime Strike Squadron 74, aboard the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier Dwight D. Eisenhowers. (MCSN Orion Shotton/Navy)
The COVID outbreak
On top of mountains of trash on the mess deck and restricted water access, Ike’s crew has endured the same COVID restrictions to which the rest of the fleet has been subjected, and the same outbreaks that have afflicted dozens of ships in the past year.
The crew members entered pre-deployment isolation right after Christmas but were not offered vaccines prior to deploying due to what Navy officials called logistical challenges in getting the vaccine to sailors in quarantine.
Naval Medical Center Portsmouth, down the road in Virginia from where sailors were quarantining, only had the Pfizer vaccine variant, which requires ultra-cold storage, and the carrier strike group does not have that storage capability, 2nd Fleet officials told Navy Times earlier this month.
Despite mitigation efforts, an unspecified number of sailors have tested positive for COVID and been flown off the ship.
Robertson declined to cite how many sailors had had to be flown off due to COVID infection, in line with a Pentagon policy to not divulge such numbers, but he said the impact had been minimal.
“Our policy is to get folks off and we’ve had no mission impact,” he said. “We’ve had enough redundancy to be able to work through it.”
COVID has made each of these deployments a white-knuckle affair since last March, when the carrier Theodore Roosevelt was forced to break off from a deployment in the Pacific due to a COVID outbreak on board that killed one sailor and infected roughly a quarter of the crew.
‘Please remember the world is different:’ A sailor recounts the Ike’s 200-plus days at sea and its surreal return
The carrier and its strike group left Virginia in mid-January and returned this month to a very different America.
That incident caused a meltdown of Navy senior leadership that ended with the acting secretary of the Navy resigning over an inappropriate speech to the crew.
Ecklund said the ship is separating sick sailors by having “an entire berthing area … set aside specifically for any potential positive COVID cases.”
While there have been no reports of any ship outbreak on the level of the TR — which began its own double-pump deployment last month — Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday said in September that more than 190 ships had seen positive COVID cases.
If that tally was limited to the sea service’s 296 deployable ships, it would mean nearly 65 percent of the fleet had experienced some level of infection.
“Aggressive early action” to isolate, quarantine and contact trace the cases had helped contain outbreaks, Gilday wrote in a message to the fleet.
Regardless of whether Ike’s current travails are standard issue or indicative of institutional neglect, the double pump deployment alone raises questions about why the Pentagon and the Navy are pushing the limits of its ships and crews, taking risks with aging platforms, when there seems little public indication of a potential military conflict.
Some onboard fear the toll to come.
“Much of leadership I have spoken to or heard of is legitimately concerned about morale, thinking suicides during the upcoming deployment are inevitable at this rate,” an officer assigned to Ike who requested anonymity for fear of retribution told Navy Times late last year. “And no one can explain, for what?”
To help the men and women aboard the carrier’s strike group better deal with this deployment, so-called “resiliency counselors” have been assigned to the warships escorting Ike on its cruise, Robertson said.
Command Master Chief Jason Reynolds was on Ike’s deployment last year and said Sunday that “the state of readiness of this crew is higher than I would have ever expected it to be.”
The carrier Dwight D. Eisenhower returns to Naval Station Norfolk in August. Ike is getting ready to leave soon on another deployment. (Navy)
While he did not go into specifics, Reynolds said they are exploring the possibility of pier-side port calls or other initiatives to get sailors off the ship and on a break at some point during the deployment.
Reynolds said that “very specialized training” has been undertaken to ready the crew and that leadership has strived to be transparent regarding “what we’re doing, and what we have ahead of us.”
“It’s been very challenging,” he said. “But through that we have gained plenty of qualifications, professional knowledge, and readiness has come a very long way.”
“It is a heavy pull,” Reynolds conceded. “We have a very long road ahead of us and a very high op tempo to sustain.”
The command plans to use hangar space for evening activities for the crew, and the “Fun Boss” has other initiatives planned, Reynolds said.
“We have some robust plans that are executing on a daily basis,” he added.
The ‘readiness debt’
When it comes to the Ike itself, both Navy leaders and experts say double pump deployments for aircraft carriers puts an enormous strain on Navy readiness and will almost certainly lead to carriers being less available should war break out.
A double pump involves a ship deploying twice in its 36-month readiness cycle, known as the Optimized Fleet Response Plan, or OFRP. Under that system, ships are supposed to deploy and then have plenty of time for repair and crew training before they head out again.
And while Navy officials say that OFRP technically allows for such double pumps, Navy analysts warn that such practices prematurely age ships, and carriers in particular.
“It’s hard for people outside the Navy to recognize how much of a readiness debt it is to deploy an older ship like the Eisenhower like that,” said Bryan Clark, a retired submarine officer and senior fellow at The Hudson Institute. “When you force the ship to deploy more than it was designed to deploy, especially a complicated ship like a carrier, so many things fail or get degraded that it just takes a long time to dig out of that hole.”
“And because the carriers are so large and complex, and because it’s hard to do the maintenance for them underway, the debt is very real and needs to be repaid.”
And that’s not just theoretical. The Navy has real-world data on the kind of toll this operational tempo puts on ships from earlier in the Ike’s career.
The Ike deployed to the Middle East from June 2012 to December 2012, only to turn right back around two months later for another four-and-a-half month cruise. That brought the total underway time for the Navy’s second-oldest carrier to 10-and-a-half months in a single year.
After that, the ship spent two years in repairs from 2013 through 2015. The shipyard period was originally planned for 14 months, but the availability was extended after workers discovered significant issues in the propulsion plant.
Ike then went on a deployment in 2016 that “came at a price,” according to the ship’s then-commanding officer: a follow-on six-month post-deployment metastasized into a nearly 18-month affair.
“If we look at IKE as a classic car … it has a lot of miles on it,” Ike CO Capt. Kyle Higgins wrote in a 2018 post on the command Facebook page.
“So, you take it to the shop, and you know what needs to get done,” Higgins wrote. “But as happens on older cars, more things pop up. They all have to be taken care of, so your car stays in the shop longer.
“This is the situation we’re in here on IKE: second- and third-order effects that we did not anticipate put us in a position where we need to requalify our Reactor Sailors for their watch stations in the plants.”
Extending ships in the yards has ripple effects throughout the Navy’s deployment schedules. In September, Fleet Forces Command’s deputy readiness officer told Defense News that the Navy is still trying to dig out of the readiness hole created by the over-use of the fleet, a problem that prompted the adoption of the new Optimized Fleet Response Plan in the first place, which has since led to Ike’s looming double pump.
“We continue to recover readiness from the conditions that led to the introduction of OFRP in 2014,” Capt. Dave Wroe wrote. “Specifically, over consumption of readiness, lack of budget stability, and the resulting impact to the industrial base. At six years of OFRP maturation, we are experiencing tangible improvements with manning, mission capable rates, and ship availability performance.”
Defense News reporter David B. Larter contributed to the reporting of this story.