Carrier Ronald Reagan Back In San Diego

But budget cuts could keep its air wing on the ground

The aircraft carrier Ronald Reagan pulls into its home port at North Island Naval Air Station Thursday afternoon after undergoing repairs at a facility in Puget Sound. On the left is Shelter Island. — John Gastaldo

The aircraft carrier Ronald Reagan returned to San Diego late Thursday after more than a year in a Puget Sound shipyard. And while sailors were jubilant for a return to sunny skies, the horizon for the ship looks less than clear.

The air wing assigned to the Reagan is scheduled to be shut down in April because of sweeping federal budget cuts known as sequestration. It begs the question: What good is 90,000 tons of Navy flattop without any fighter jets to launch?

While they await an answer, the carrier’s 2,800-sailor crew will finish up remaining work on the flight deck in April and begin basic training in May, said Capt. Thom Burke, the Reagan’s commanding officer.

“The expectation is we’ll be going out to start training in May,” he said. “But we’ll have to see how things go with the budget issues. I’m not sure at this point.”

A spokesman for Naval Air Forces said the Reagan is not on the schedule to deploy this year, anyway.

A carrier returning from a major overhaul usually requires roughly 10 months of training before it can be considered ready to deploy.

But with the sequestration budget cuts, it’s an open question how the training calendar will look.

Cmdr. Kevin Stephens of the Naval Air Forces command at North Island Naval Air Station said Thursday that future training schedules are still being worked out.

“We’re still in the discussion and planning phases because of the impacts of the budget,” he said.

The Reagan’s skipper said it’s possible that an early 2014 deployment may be delayed.

“Because the requirements in the Fifth Fleet (Arabian Sea) have been changing somewhat, and because of this budget issue, the deck of cards on carrier deployments is probably going to get shuffled a little bit, yes,” Burke said. “But I don’t know what our new schedule will be.”

The stand down of the air wing means that none of the Reagan’s assigned F/A-18 jets, helicopters or other aircraft will be flying.

Stephens said that aircraft will be prepared for long-term storage. Air crews will use simulators to maintain a degree of proficiency, but squadron personnel will be assigned administrative and other duties. Any general military training will not involve flight.

The Navy has said that air wings assigned to the Washington state-based John C. Stennis, the San Diego-based Carl Vinson and the Virginia-based Eisenhower will also stand down in April. Two others will be reduced to sustainment-only levels.

There’s an element of wait-and-see here. All of these plans hinge on the federal budget, which is in flux this week in Washington, D.C.

Peter Daly, a retired three-star admiral who leads the U.S. Naval Institute, said that if Congress passes a continuing spending resolution that allows a little financial wiggle room for the Navy, the Reagan air wing might come off the shutdown list.

“The Navy has a buyback list with Congress, and the Navy would like to get that air wing back. If the Navy gets help and a little more flexibility, I think the Navy would do everything it can to get that air wing back,” he said.

Daly said the flattop can probably do initial training without the air wing.

The Reagan’s skipper said the ship will probably use aircraft from Naval Air Systems Command to recertify the flight deck in the short term. Then, Burke’s plan is to ease into training by hosting student pilots who are testing for carrier landing qualifications.

Daly said that the Reagan will need its actual air wing about five months into training, if it is going to deploy.

Defense analyst Lawrence Korb of the Center for American Progress said there’s some budgetary gamesmanship at play. He said that despite the air wing stand down, the Navy would dispatch the carrier if it was called upon.

“If somebody called up and said, ‘We’re going to war with Syria,’ they wouldn’t say, ‘We can’t go.’ No, they would go,” said Korb, a former naval flight officer, who also seemed skeptical of claims that restarting an air wing would be arduous.

“They are supposed to fly X amount of hours a month. If you fly X minus 10, does that mean you can never fly again? I don’t think so,” Korb said. “Do you think you’ll forget how to fly?”

Flight issues aside, just having a second aircraft carrier assigned to the bay is an economic boon for San Diego.

The ship brings $203 million in sailor salaries, plus the ripple effect of ship maintenance contracts, supply and utility outlays, and spending by Navy families.

About 700 Reagan sailors are new to the ship since it departed San Diego in January 2012. About 600 sailors chose to leave their families behind during the 14 months away, hoping that the ship would again be assigned here.

The carrier received $250 million in maintenance while the ship was in dry dock.

Puget Sound workers overhauled the Reagan’s propulsion engines, rudders and propeller shafts. They also blasted, repaired and repainted the hull.

The Reagan was commissioned in 2003 and arrived in its first home port, San Diego, in 2004. The carrier completed five deployments in six years, returning from the last one in September 2011.

The kind of maintenance just completed is required twice in the 50-year life of a flattop, Burke said. In addition, it goes through a four-year nuclear refueling at roughly 25 years.

“Ships kind of rust away — that’s what limits the life cycle. They get corroded and too hard to fix. So you really just have to stay on top of it,” he said.

“If you can do that successfully, you can use the ship for a long time.”

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