Chief of Naval Operations: Navy Will Close 'Carrier Gap'
by Sandra I. Erwin
The U.S. Navy will be ramping up ship maintenance and crew training so it can deploy more aircraft carrier strike groups around the world, said Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John M. Richardson.
“We are resetting the system to get more carriers forward,” Richardson told National Defense Nov. 12. “This will be done by the end of the year,” he added. “We'll be generating more carrier presence.”
The absence of a Navy carrier strike group in the Middle East in recent weeks was only temporary, Richardson said. “Our commitment to that part of the world hasn't changed a bit.”
The so-called “carrier gap” set off a political firestorm in Washington last month as lawmakers challenged Navy leaders to explain why the current fleet of 10 aircraft carriers is not enough to maintain global presence.
A perfect storm of budget cuts, delayed maintenance and increased demands resulted in a shortage of carriers, said Richardson. “We are catching up from the 2013 sequestration,” he said. “We have 10 carriers but some are in maintenance so not all are ready.”
The Navy announced Nov. 13 that the USS Truman and several escort ships will depart this week from Norfolk, Va., for a Middle East deployment.
Richardson said a new “fleet response plan” that better synchronizes maintenance, crew training and logistics support is going to help prevent future gaps in global presence. U.S. Fleet Forces Command in 2014 introduced a new “optimized” fleet response plan that was designed to increase stability and predictability in deployment schedules. “We did a lot of research two, three years ago,” Richardson said. “We are phasing into a new readiness generation model which is going to generate more readiness.”
Amid an escalating conflict against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, not having an aircraft carrier group in the Middle East for a month caught the attention of lawmakers. A hearing was convened Nov. 3 by Rep. Randy Forbes, R-Va., chairman of the House Armed Services subcommittee on seapower and projection forces.
During the hearing, Navy officials discussed the state of play. Sean J. Stackley, assistant secretary of the Navy for research development and acquisitions, noted that the fleet today is one carrier short of the required 11, a force size that was set in law in 2007. With the inactivation of the USS Enterprise in 2013 and pending the delivery of Gerald R. Ford, CVN 78 in 2016, the Navy is operating at a deficit, Stackley said. “This will effectively be the case until the Ford is ready for her deployment currently projected in 2021.”
For now, working with a 10 carrier force has “become more challenging with increased combatant commander demand for carrier presence,” said Stackley. “The Navy has adjusted maintenance and operational schedules by extending carrier deployment lengths.” The greater frequency and duration of deployments, meanwhile, has heightened maintenance and repair demands back home. “These challenges have been further exacerbated in recent years by the budget uncertainty and sequestration,” Stackley added.
The Navy is confident that the optimized fleet response plan will work, said Vice Adm. John C. Aquilino, deputy chief of naval operations for plans and strategy.
The current carrier shortage has been years in the making, he noted. “We severely overused the carrier force throughout 2011, '12 and '13 when we maintained a two-carrier presence in the Middle East, while at the same time providing presence to the Pacific where it's also needed.” The goal set by the CNO is “two plus three carriers hopefully by 2020,” said Aquilino. That means having two carriers deployed at all times and three more ready to respond to crises.
Four of the Navy’s carriers today are in “deep maintenance,” Stackley said. One is undergoing midlife refueling and overhaul, and the other three are in repair depots. The USS George Washington is coming back to the United States to begin its refueling and overhaul. “So you have five carriers that are carrying on the operating cycle and they're going to be rotating through their deployments,” he explained. “And if the temperature rises in a risk area around the world, then senior leadership is going to have to decide, ‘Is it more important to do that maintenance which is a long-term investment, or do we have to respond today to the immediate crisis?’ And that's going to come down to what is the nature of immediate crisis.”
Retired Adm. Mark Fitzgerald said carrier gaps have been a recurring challenge for the Navy. “Carrier demand has exceeded supply for many years. That’s not new,” he said at an industry conference in September. After the 9/11 attacks in 2001, Navy leaders drew up a new fleet response plan to create a “semi permanent state of surge,” said Fitzgerald, who retired in 2010 and is a former commander of U.S. naval forces in Europe and Africa.
The readiness of the carrier fleet has declined over the past decade, he said. In the early 2000s, the posture was to have three carriers deployed and three others ready to go. Budget cuts and postponed maintenance has hurt the fleet, Fitzgerald said. “We are using ships inefficiently. We have to get on track with maintenance and modernization. We know how to do this.”
Photo U.S. Navy