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8-month deployments become the 'new norm'

Dec. 2, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
Ships from the John C. Stennis Carrier Strike Group transit the Pacific Ocean in 2012. Stennis sailors spent 15 months out of two years deployed.
Ships from the John C. Stennis Carrier Strike Group transit the Pacific Ocean in 2012. Stennis sailors spent 15 months out of two years deployed. (MC3 Kenneth Abbate/Navy)
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Eight-month deployments are becoming the fleet standard, with some stretching much longer. For instance, destroyers Barry and Gravely returned from nine-month cruises in November that were extended due to the Syrian crisis.

Eight-month deployments are becoming the fleet standard, with some stretching much longer. For instance, destroyers Barry and Gravely returned from nine-month cruises in November that were extended due to the Syrian crisis.

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Eight-month deployments are becoming the fleet standard, with some stretching much longer. For instance, destroyers Barry and Gravely returned from nine-month cruises in November that were extended due to the Syrian crisis.

Destroyer Shoup bested them with a 10-month cruise — believed to be one of the longest destroyer cruises since World War II.

Those aren’t anomalies. They are the result of scheduling longer cruises — which get much longer when a crisis erupts.

“Our deployments are going to be seven-and-a-half, eight months,” said Rear Adm. Brian Luther, whose staff monitors operations tempo for the chief of naval operations. “So what I think you can say is the six-month deployments will be the exception rather than the norm. And the new norm now will be the seven-and-a-half, eight-month deployments.”

Navy officials strenuously objected to that notion of routine, longer deployments two years ago, but cruises continued to creep longer.

Indeed, the strain sailors have felt in the past few years is backed up by newly released Navy data showing the fleet’s deployment pace recently spiked to record levels, a flux littered with long cruises and short turnarounds that is upping wear and tear on sailors and ships. It is even prompting some to reconsider staying in.

“We have missed two Thanksgivings, Christmases, New Year’s and many other holidays,” said Interior Communications Electrician 3rd Class Caleb Weis, a crew member aboard the aircraft carrier John C. Stennis, which returned from a seven-month cruise in 2012 only to sail away six months later on what turned out to be an eight-month deployment. Crew members spent 15 months of those two years deployed. Those cruises — and the long hours some are putting into dry-dock work — are causing many Stennis sailors to reconsider whether it’s worth it to stay in.

“I have never seen so many people choose to end their naval careers so fast,” Weis told Navy Times in a Nov. 22 email, noting that he plans to get out in late January. “After the past two years, I have realized that I am not cut out for this type of work.”

Many say the era of six-month deployments and set schedules is long gone.

“It’s been a long time since I have seen or heard of someone who ONLY did a 6-month deployment,” wrote Cryptologic Technician (Networks) 1st Class (IDW) Andre Sedillo in an email.

Navy data shows that today’s fleet is operating near breakneck pace. It peaked in 2012, when the nearly year-round demand for two carriers in 5th Fleet pushed tempo past the heights seen at the outset of the Iraq War. That pace remains elevated: 2013 is likely to be the fourth-highest year since officials began tracking — a level that is continuing to stress the force, according to interviews with more than a dozen sailors, spouses and officials. It also raises questions about whether the Navy, as the Afghanistan War staggers to its end, is resetting to a high pace that threatens to grind down ships and crews long-term.

Fleet bosses are under pressure to keep ships deployed to respond to the world’s increasingly unsettled regions, from unrest across North Africa to the contested seas off China. Officials say they’re doing their best to dial back deployments but note the raised pace hasn’t reduced re-enlistments and is likely to be the standard for the foreseeable future.

But with deployments stretching even as needed ship overhauls are at risk of being axed, some influential lawmakers are voicing concern.

“We’ve already been putting greater op times on our ships and our sailors, and the trend line looks horrible. It doesn’t even look bad,” said Rep. Randy Forbes, a Virginia Republican who chairs the House Seapower and Projection Forces subcommittee. “The fewer ships you have, the more you need to keep them deployed.”

Sailor advocates go further, arguing the Navy is sailing at an unsustainable rate.

“There’s a definite mismatch between operational commitments, deployment requirements and the number of personnel that are needed to sustain those commitments,” said Joe Barnes, a retired master chief who headed the Fleet Reserve Association for 11 years, after reviewing the operational tempo data. “I think, over time, you’re wearing out the force.”

A balancing act

Tensions were spreading across the Middle East, and the U.S. was facing down an assertive opponent. Sailors felt the effects: deployments much longer than the six-month cruises that had once been the standard.

This was the early 1980s.

Aircraft carrier Nimitz was sailing in the Mediterranean when Iranians overran the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, taking Americans hostage in November 1979. The Nimitz’s deployment was extended to participate in a helicopter rescue attempt in April 1980 that was unsuccessful. During one stretch, Nimitz spent almost five straight months at sea. The ship returned to Norfolk in late May after a 270-day deployment — then one of the longest in years.

Other ships and subs began to deploy for longer periods of time to maintain America’s forward presence. But these longer cruises began to demoralize the force, and officials became concerned about falling re-up rates among sailors, particularly junior sailors.

A change was needed. In October 1985, Navy Secretary John Lehman instituted new rules to track fleet pace and to cap the normal deployment’s length and frequency. The changes were intended to return ships to a more steady pattern of six-month deployments.

Lehman, along with the chief of naval operations and fleet commanders, “initiated a concerted effort to eliminate excessive operating tempo for ships and aircraft squadrons,” states the Navy’s current personnel tempo instruction. “The PERSTEMPO program will balance combatant commanders’ presence requirements with preserving quality of life for our sailors.”

The rules set deployment caps at seven months — six months for ships that deployed twice in one cycle — and mandated crews spend as much time at home as they did deployed. In cases where these limits were exceeded, the CNO can approve a waiver request. This allows officials to track deployments with an eye toward the long-term health of the force.

To be sure, the op-tempo rules do not apply everywhere. Exempted from the policy are: ballistic missile submarines, fleet replacement squadrons, forward-based ships such as minesweepers with rotating crews, Seabee battalions and cryptologic detachments.

This data shows the fleet’s pace, already elevated over the past decade, is at risk of resetting to an extremely high rate — one that rivals the surge deployments at the start of the Iraq War.

In fact, today’s numbers could be even higher. Prior to fiscal 2010, one command could be counted for several waivers if it triggered those for dwell time, deployment length or frequency. After the change, each command could only be tallied for one. The numbers still jumped.

“This is huge,” said Barnes, the former master chief who retired as FRA’s national executive director in October. As a Congress-chartered association that represents the interests of sailors, Marines and Coast Guardsmen on Capitol Hill, FRA closely studies the affects of high op tempo.

“This is a major concern and the impact of what’s going on with people over time is really significant,” Barnes said. “We’ve been at war since 2001, and you’ve got a period of just unprecedented demands.”

During that time, officials have allowed the burdens to grow while letting slip an important tool to curb it: deployment pay. Lawmakers designed this $100-a-day pay to compel the services to not overwork their troops, but it has been suspended since 9/11.

How it was supposed to work: Every day a sailor is deployed more than 400 days during a two-year period, they’re entitled to $100. Thousands of sailors would qualify for payments, such as those Stennis sailors who made both deployments, together adding up to 15 months.

New normal

Big Navy is known as a “force provider.” It hires the sailors and provides trained and equipped crews to the combatant commanders, four-star officers from all the services who spearhead operations around the world. These COCOMs set the demand signal to which the Navy responds. Demand remains great despite a much smaller force.

To illustrate that point, the Navy’s top officer frequently references a chart that shows the Navy’s global presence.

“Today we have 286 ships. About a hundred ships are forward-deployed,” Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jon Greenert told an audience in Florida in one such presentation Nov. 14. “Twenty years ago, we had 450 ships, and we had 100 ships forward-deployed. And 10 years ago, we had almost 300 ships and still 100 ships deployed.”

Navy officials recently listed other carriers scheduled for long deployments: the George H.W. Bush will leave in February for a nine-month cruise; the Carl Vinson will leave in August and return in June 2015, for a 10-month cruise; and the Theodore Roosevelt will deploy in March 2015, for an eight-month cruise.

But that’s if crises don’t erupt. One of the risks is that, the longer the scheduled deployment, the bigger the chance that an unforeseen crisis will push the cruise to historic lengths.

That was the case for the Bataan Amphibious Ready Group. It deployed three months early in March, 2011, to support NATO strikes against Libya and ended up spending 10½ months, or 322 days, deployed — the longest cruise in nearly four decades.

It topped the 2002-03 cruise of the carrier Abraham Lincoln, which was extended to 9½ months so the flattop could launch airstrikes during the Iraq invasion.

When these situations arise, Navy officials see their job as tailoring the ships to best meet the Pentagon’s demands. After tensions with Syria crested in August, for instance, the Pentagon amassed a strike force. But with advice from Navy officials, they decided to cut loose the destroyers Mahan and Barry, which were nearing the end of their scheduled deployments. Mahan returned from an 8½-month cruise; Barry from a nine-month cruise.

Navy officials also orchestrated the Eisenhower carrier strike group’s unusual deployment. Ike left home port in June 2012, on what they expected to be a nine-month deployment. But their relief, the Nimitz, suffered maintenance problems, and Ike faced the possibility of being significantly extended. Instead, officials decided to bring the flattop home for the holidays. It deployed again in February. When Ike and its escorts returned home in July from this second cruise, they had spent 10½ of the last 13 months deployed.

Officials view this as a victory for lessening the brunt on the nearly 5,000 sailors aboard carrier Eisenhower and cruiser Hue City, which also pulled double-duty.

Luther made clear his goal is to get the waivers down and was pleased to see the tally drop from 115 last year to what they expect to be the mid-80s for fiscal 2013. His staff is also eyeing ways to streamline the deployment burden. The leading options are longer deployments or deploying twice during each 36-month cycle. The two-deployment model has a lot of backers because it maximizes forward presence with two seven-month deployments, but its future is unclear: Officials say an estimated $2.4 billion is needed to put this into place, money that hasn’t arrived.

Luther briefs the CNO on every ship or command that triggers a waiver, or, in their lingo, “busts” deployment caps.

“The goal is not to bust, not to go through the guidelines,” he said in a Nov. 20 interview at the Pentagon.

But the trend is longer, not shorter deployments, and with it the likelihood of increased stress on the ranks. And it is unclear how closely the Navy has studied this.

Luther said he was not aware of any studies of the long-term personnel impacts of the 7½- and eight-month deployments. Neither the chief of naval personnel’s office nor Fleet Forces Command were able to say whether these impacts, including retention, had been studied or what the findings were.

If there are impacts, personnel officials say they haven’t seen them yet — but will be able to track them via tools like the individual tempo program, which tracks every sailor’s deployment time.

“Our retention remains well above historic norms, and the majority of our sailors do not exceed PERSTEMPO limits,” said Lt. Hayley Sims, a CNP spokeswoman, in a statement. “Working with the fleets, we continue to look closely at unit OPTEMPO and sailor PERSTEMPO to identify retention or resiliency trends before they become readiness problems for our sailors and our Navy.”

The effects have also been felt on the homefront. Sailors are supposed to get roughly a year and a half at home after a deployment, a time for repairs and training. But that period is getting condensed. Carrier Carl Vinson, for example, deployed for 5½ months in 2012 and then, half a year later, deployed again, this time for five months.

And the burden isn’t just on big decks. When destroyer Paul Hamilton returned to Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, in June, it flew a lengthy pennant from its yardarm. This pennant was 242 feet long: each foot represented a sailor who’d been aboard the deployed ship for nine months. It is a tradition rarely seen since the combat deployments of Vietnam and World War II.

'Hasn't gotten any easier'

The possibility of deploying longer or more often is causing some sailors to change their minds.

One E-5 with the Virginia Beach-based Assault Craft Unit 2 said the rising deployment demands are forcing him to reconsider such life choices as having a family.

“I have recently married, and my wife and I have decided not to pursue having children until after I’ve retired, specifically because of deployment lengths increasing,” said the sailor, who asked to remain anonymous to speak frankly about his concerns.

It has also colored his thinking about the Navy, saying he intends to stay in no longer than the seven years he needs to retire with benefits.

“Unfortunately, I’m in no way looking to go any further after that, even if I were to earn E-7,” he said in an email.

It isn’t just longer deployments. Culinary Specialist 1st Class (SW) David Dankert has deployed five times in the past six years — including his current Mediterranean deployment aboard the frigate Simpson. Dankert needs four more years to be retirement-eligible and calculates that he’ll need to do one more deployment before he heads to his final assignment at a shore command.

“As far as my family goes, they really don’t like me being gone as much as I have been,” he told Navy Times in an email from the Simpson. “It hasn’t gotten any easier the more I’ve been gone, either.”

Navy families are the first to feel the effects of a sailor who’s gone longer or more often. Between the possibility of longer cruises or more frequent ones — the two options on the table, officials say — many spouses prefer the longer ones.

“More frequent deployment means you’re having to re-assimilate more often, and that’s especially hard on children,” said Allison Leapard, a Navy wife with two kids, ages 4 and 7. She speaks from experience: Her husband, a limited-duty officer lieutenant, deployed on frigate Nicholas for a six-month cruise in 2012. But only six months after returning, the frigate left on a surge deployment that lasted seven months.

Others feel that the pace already is too high. Many are spouses of sailors on extended deployments, like those on the Nimitz, which is nearing the end of what’s likely to be an 8½-month cruise. One spouse called this the “hardest” of her husband’s deployments in their 10 years of marriage.

“It is difficult for him to not be able to come home and recharge after work,” said the spouse, who asked to remain anonymous to prevent her husband from getting in hot water, and who has two young daughters. “We understand that they will go where they are needed... What we didn’t anticipate was that it would eventually feel like he was gone more than he was home.

“Our family has made a commitment to the Navy, we did choose this,” she continued in an email. “It is my hope that our girls will have good memories with their father and not feel as though he was never there for them.”

Staff writer Mark D. Faram contributed to this report.

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