A Fleet without a Rudder

The Navy could soon deploy the Dwight D. Eisenhower and Theodore Roosevelt carrier strike groups—again. The USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN-69) spent a record 206 consecutive days at sea during its last deployment. The USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71) made national headlines after a quarter of the 5,000 sailors on board were infected by COVID-19, and the ship remained tied to the pier in Guam for more than a month. If both strike groups deploy again in the coming months, thousands of sailors would spend double the normal period of time at sea, on top of normal predeployment exercises, routine at-sea training, and a newly mandated 21-day COVID mitigation sequester. A traditional deployment cycle has ships deploying once for 180 days in a three-year period. To meet its global force commitments, the Navy is frequently forced to double the typical deployment time of its CSGs. But, toward what end? What major war is the United States fighting?

Deploying the strike groups costs tax payers $5 million per day, or nearly $1 billion per deployment, assuming the ships remain at sea for only six months—unlikely given repeated deployment extensions. These figures do not factor in the maintenance deficit incurred by the ships or the associated $150 million annual maintenance cost of a Nimitz-class carrier. Meanwhile, the human costs of deploying in the midst of a global pandemic are staggering, causing what Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Mike Gilday described as burnout across the fleet.

The Navy’s need to deploy the Dwight D. Eisenhower and Theodore Roosevelt strike groups less than six months after completing record-breaking deployments demonstrates a failure to balance readiness and maintenance, a misunderstanding of the human costs of repeated deployments, and an astounding level of strategic dissonance. The Navy is a ship without a rudder—directionless and out of control.

The Matériel Crisis

For a ship to suffer a complete loss of steering, multiple redundant systems must fail. In this case, the first to go was the Optimized Fleet Response Plan (OFRP)—the Navy’s ill-fated attempt to normalize maintenance, training, and deployment cycles to ensure ships and their crews were able to sustain high levels of readiness while keeping maintenance predictable. This system does not work. In the words of Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, “The OFRP hasn’t worked for years, so why should we assume it will work in the future?”

The OFRP’s extended sustainment phase provides combatant commanders a perverse incentive to deploy ships twice in short succession since the system is designed for that possibility. Yet it is no secret that using this “double pump” option comes at the expense of material and personnel readiness. The Abraham Lincoln carrier strike group deployed for eleven months in 2019—the longest carrier deployment since the Vietnam War—after the USS Harry S. Truman (CVN-75) suffered an electrical problem that prevented her from relieving the Lincoln in the Persian Gulf. The Truman deployed twice the previous year and spent nearly nine months at sea. In other words, longer deployments lead to more material deficiencies, which in turn lead to longer maintenance periods, which cause other ships to remain at sea for longer periods of time.

These challenges sit on top of disastrous maintenance delays, a shortage of shipyards, and a military-industrial complex controlled by just three major contractors. As a result, more than 60 percent of the Navy’s ships fail to complete maintenance availabilities on time. Despite a $2.8 billion capital investment in maintenance between FY2015 and FY2019, the Navy experienced a combined total of 7,424 days of delays in that same period. That is more than 20 years’ worth of delays in five years!

An impending downturn in defense spending will exacerbate these trends. A White House Office of Management and Budget memo submitted by the Navy regarding its FY2021 budget request confirmed this reality—the Navy will be slightly smaller in five years than it is today, decommission twelve more hulls over the next four years, and reduce shipbuilding funding and hull buys by $4 billion and four ships, respectively, compared with the FY2020 ship procurement plan. This is a bleak future in which the Navy will be smaller and unable to address global challenges.

The Human Costs

“The Admirals back in Washington had so many pressures on them, so many diversions, they forgot their primary job is to make sure that the Fleet is ready to go with highly trained and motivated Sailors. The problem particularly manifests itself when the budget is way down.”

  • Admiral Thomas B. Hayward, 21st Chief of Naval Operations, recalling the post-Vietnam War drawdown (quoted in Commander Guy Snodgrass’s white paper on retention)

Once the officers on the bridge recognize their ship has lost steering, they transfer control below the waterline where redundant systems take over. Beneath the metaphorical waterline of “Big Navy” exists the fleet’s most critical system—its sailors. This system is failing, and once it does, the fleet will truly be rudderless.

To understand the human cost of a second deployment under pandemic conditions, it is instructive to listen to the sailors who experienced the last one. Their ships remained at sea for more than 200 days—an unheard of length since the early days of the war in Afghanistan. Upon returning to port, they could not visit families in other states because of quarantine restrictions. Now, as they prepare for another arduous deployment, they must undergo a 21-day quarantine period and a month-long at-sea exercise, further cutting their time to rest and spend with family to just three of eighteen months.

The Army’s experience with personnel fatigue after two decades of wars in the Middle East is particularly instructive to Navy leaders seeking to understand burn out in the fleet today. “The Army is worn out. We are keeping people in theater who are exhausted,” said one Army public affairs officer while speaking to reporters in 2007. He was right. Between the initial invasion in 2003 and the drawdown in 2009, the Army saw an 80 percent increase in suicides, an equal increase in desertion rates, and a shortage of more than 3,000 officers.

Full data on retention, divorce, and suicide rates in today’s Navy are not available to open-source researchers, but they would not tell the full story even if they were. Any Navy leader would be hard pressed to ignore the toll these recent decisions have had on personnel. I personally see exhausted and mentally distraught sailors every day; these observations are not always quantifiable, but the human costs are real.

As leaders, we are trained to communicate problems up the chain of command and explain “the why” behind decisions to junior members of the organization. What happens when you no longer provide feedback because senior leaders do not listen to recommendations or it becomes impossible to explain to sailors the strategic “why” behind major decisions such as deployments?

Strategic Dissonance

Before the rudder even jammed, the Navy did not know where it was going. Enter strategic dissonance, which occurs when an organization fails to recognize a major change in its industry or operating environment and continues to follow an outdated model of success. Today, the lack of a coherent strategic logic behind the CSG deployments demonstrates that the Navy’s senior leaders pay extensive lip service to “great power competition” but fail to match words to actions.

The Dwight D. Eisenhower CSG previously deployed from Norfolk, Virginia, to the Persian Gulf in support of U.S. Central Command (CentCom). During testimony on 10 March 2020, the CentCom commander, Marine Corps General Kenneth McKenzie, told the House of Representatives that aircraft carriers have “a profound deterring affect principally upon Iran.” McKenzie’s assertion started a discussion of returning to a two-carrier presence in the Persian Gulf—a decision with significant consequences for the Navy’s falling readiness level, strained maintenance cycles, and exhausted personnel.

Yet U.S. naval power does not deter Iranian power projection, which is primarily manifested in international terrorism and through Middle East proxies. Carrier air power has limited effectiveness against irregular forces. Even more to the point, if the United States identified Russia and China as its key strategic competitors, the Indo-Pacific as the primary theater for competition, and the Middle East, in Clausewitzian terms, as a “secondary front” or “lesser objective,” why is it sending the bulk of its combat power to the Persian Gulf?

On the other side of the country, the Theodore Roosevelt strike group recently returned from the Western Pacific. Though Western Pacific deployments make more strategic sense than sending the Dwight D. Eisenhower to the Persian Gulf, simply adding more carriers to the Indo-Pacific is not the answer to deterring China. The reality of the missions the Navy is being asked to perform, and the carriers’ perceived vulnerability against China’s sensor-to-shooter networks, suggest now is a good time to rethink the Navy’s carrier fleet and deployment concepts of operations. During my own time operating with CSGs in the Western Pacific, the carrier provided limited utility to regional missions, such as ballistic missile defense and sanctions enforcement against North Korea.

As in past operations, it is unclear how the Dwight D. Eisenhower or Theodore Roosevelt strike groups could support U.S. strategic objectives if they deployed again. As some within the national security community have pointed out, great power competition is not a strategy in and of itself.

So What?

After an accident such as a loss of steering occurs, ship or aircraft crews are required to generate a mishap report to determine what went wrong and how to prevent it in the future. In the tradition of the naval service, the fleet should undertake an honest assessment of its recent shortfalls, and hold accountable those responsible for poor decisions.

The 2017 Comprehensive Review and Strategic Review were positive steps in the right direction, but three years later, little change is visible at the deck-plate level. For example, the Comprehensive Review identified the Navy’s “can-do” culture as a “barrier to success,” as well as the fact a “high number of inspections, certifications, assessments, and visits by external organizations create a burden on ship’s crews.” In 2020, both the can-do culture and constant stress of inspections remain, and those are just two of many examples.

A new review process conducted by an outside entity could explain how the Navy got to the point of deploying two carrier strike groups without a functioning maintenance system, without accounting for the human costs, and without a clear strategy. A Congressional mandate that the study’s recommendations be followed could produce meaningful changes within the organization. Removing poor decision-makers from senior ranks would send a clear signal that the Navy takes accountability seriously at all levels of command.

Moreover, the Navy should release a new maritime strategy that articulates clear geographic priorities, sheds mission requirements that do not improve warfighting against great powers, presents a fleet design with realistic ship numbers, and creates a timeline for achieving these objectives. Likewise, shipyard reform, an investment in new maintenance technologies, and a realistic assessment of readiness would reform the OFRP and significantly improving the Navy’s ability to take combat-ready ships to sea. Finally, a renewed focus on personnel resiliencytalent retention, and how deployments affect sailors and their families is needed.

Above all else, not deploying the Dwight D. Eisenhower or Theodore Roosevelt strike groups would show sailors and Congress that the Navy recognizes its shortcomings and is making a course correction. But until the Navy understands why it should not deploy them, it will remain a fleet without a rudder.

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