U.S. Navy’s New Plan Aims To Lock In 8-month Carrier Deployments

(DEFENSE NEWS 15 JAN 14) … Sam Fellman

From the standoff with Syria to the response to the typhoon-stricken Philippines two months later, the U.S. Navy fleet showed its global might in late 2013. But those deployments bear long-term risks: sailors worn down by longer cruises and scheduling flux that can shorten or endanger overhauls needed to reset the hull.

Experts have warned that the fleet cannot keep sailing at this rate.

The four-star in charge of Fleet Forces Command unveiled Wednesday the Navy’s latest plan to better maintain its ships and return a measure of predictability back to sailors’ and spouses’ lives. The Optimized Fleet Response Plan calls for extending the carrier strike group deployment cycle to 36 months and includes a standard eight-month cruise. While an increase over the once-standard six-month deployments, Adm. Bill Gortney stressed that eight-month cruises will be a drop from today’s carrier cruises that stretch months and beyond.

“We’re trying to get our deployment lengths back in line to an eight-month deployment,” Gortney said Wednesday at the annual Surface Navy Association symposium held outside Washington, DC. “Right now, we’re averaging anywhere from nine to 10 months for all of our carriers, our and destroyers, especially the [ballistic-missile defense] ships, and our [amphibious ready group] ships.”

Gortney hopes to lock in eight-month cruises for carriers and the air wings and the escort ships that sail with them – nearly 85 percent of the fleet. These changes likely will end up affecting amphibs and the sub force after they take effect, strike group by strike group, starting in November 2014.

The first to adopt the new schedule will be the Truman Carrier Strike Group after its deployment.

In addition to locking in eight-month cruises, Gortney said his plan will boost sailors’ time spent at home. Gortney believes this will lower the stress of sailors and their families.

“We think eight months is about at the limit of a sustainable model to keep sailors and their families in the Navy,” Gortney said in an interview Wednesday. “Now eight months may sound like a long time. When I grew up, it was a six-month [deployment] – at the time … we thought was the level. But that was a six-month in a 24-month turnaround.”

Under the new deployment plan, fleet sailors will be home 68 percent of the time, Gortney said, adding: “That’s really high. We’re not anywhere close to that right now. And so an eight-month deployment in a three-year period … we think that that’s going to be sustainable to our sailors.”

“But it’s right at the edge, we think. And we don’t want to go over that.”

Fixing fleet manpower remains a top priority, with thousands of billets open. The Navy is reviewing all of its career sea pay, the first review in 13 years and after a decade of surging operational tempo. Officials also hope to plug more of the fleet’s manning gaps using many carrots – some sticks.

“We are seeking people to volunteer and we will be ordering people to go back in order to fleet,” Gortney said. “But we will be compensating people for that.”

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