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Uneven burden: Some ships see time at sea surge; others fall well below fleetwide average

Jun. 15, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
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Sailors on the destroyer Stockdale have seen more of the sea than they have of their families in the past three years.

The Stockdale is one of four ships in the surface fleet that spent more time underway than it did in port from 2011 to 2013, a straining pace of deployments and training far beyond the limits intended by fleet bosses.

New data shows the fleet’s underway time is out of balance, where some ships have picked up the slack for others that, for one reason or another, haven’t been out to sea as often.

The average ship was underway 33 percent of the time during the three-year period, according to official tallies of underway days for 150 ships obtained by Navy Times.

CHART: Uneven burden: A look at time at sea by ship

Destroyers, the workhorses of the fleet, were higher, with an average time away from the pier of about 35 percent.

The Stockdale, by contrast, was gone nearly 52 percent of the time. It was not alone.The cruiser Gettysburg also spent 52 percent of the 36 months underway. The carrier John C. Stennis and the destroyer Higgins spent a little more than 50 percent of the same time frame at sea.

On the other end of the spectrum, several cruisers were far below the fleet average of 33 percent underway. The Lake Champlain, Normandy, Chosin, Shiloh and Lake Erie all spent less than 25 percent of their time underway during the cycle for reasons ranging from extended upgrades to budget issues.

In 2013, Normandy was underway 23 days after spending all but the last two months in dry dock, but 2011 and 2012 were also below the fleet average, with 26.5 percent and 28 percent, respectively.

The true “USS Seldomsails,” however, are the amphibious command ships Mount Whitney and Blue Ridge, which averaged about 22.5 percent of the last three years underway. Only the Blue Ridge in 2011 spent more than 100 days underway during the cycle.

The Navy underway data does not cover the entire fleet. Officials declined to release past underway tallies for attack- and ballistic-missile submarines, saying the information could be used by an adversary to measure Navy capabilities. And officials were unable to release similar data for coastal patrol ships, mine countermeasures ships, logistics ships or submarine tenders.

With no end to the fleet’s high operational tempo in sight, personnel officials have boosted sea pay and are proposing a new deployment pay that would better compensate sailors for long deployments.

“As our Navy continues to be in high demand, deployment lengths and operating tempo will remain high,” Vice Adm. Bill Moran, the chief of naval personnel, said in a statement. “We feel it’s important to compensate sailors on extended deployments in the future. Coordination with the Marine Corps, often times our partners at sea, continues in order to present a unified Department of the Navy proposal.”

Return date unknown

In 2011, the Stockdale was one of the Navy’s newest destroyers. It opened the year on its maiden deployment after having departed San Diego in late November 2010.

After an eight-month independent deployment, the ship returned in July for some downtime. The next year’s deployments progressed near fleetwide averages, getting underway for exercises with the aircraft carrier Carl Vinson and for Rim of the Pacific exercises, but also spending two months in the yards before closing the year with a composite training unit exercise and a joint task force exercise with the aircraft carrier Nimitz.

Then the destroyer departed Jan. 14 for a nine-month deployment. On the way back, tensions came to a head with Syria.

“We were just leaving 5th Fleet and were getting ready to head home,” said Cmdr. Bo Johns, the commanding officer of the Stockdale. “It was about 1900, 2000 in the evening. I got on the 1MC and let everybody know that we were extended, talked a little bit about why, and said we didn’t have a return date yet.”

Johns said he went around the deck plates chatting with his crew after the announcement. They were understandably bummed.

“It was one of the most impressive moments of the entire cruise,” Johns said. “They were a bit down, but the next morning it was as if nothing had happened. They went right back to work, motivated as ever.”

Johns said he’s been amazed at how his crew took the operational tempo of the last few years in stride and that it was important for leadership to tell sailors why they’re being asked to do what they are doing.

While sailors are resilient, the Navy’s leaders are worried about the toll on morale that could come from years of unpredictable schedules and disparities between ships.

'Haves and have-nots'

Navy leaders blame schedules like the Stockdale’s on the turbulent budget picture and the impact of the across-the-board sequestration cuts that shrunk the Navy’s coffers by billions.

The service’s top officer in April summed up the problem this way:

“Sequestration stopped some maintenance, stopped some training and preparation,” Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jon Greenert told Navy Times after a hearing in response to a question about op tempo. “So those who were on watch out there — because that’s where the money goes — they are out there getting it all done, and those back here aren’t training.

“So I’ve got haves and have-nots in terms of pilots and surface warfare officers. We’ve got some who are steaming and flying like crazy and those who are not. And the ones that are not are saying, ‘That’s not what I joined for.’ And the ones that are, they’re saying, ‘Wow, this is overwhelming.’ ”

The problem may run deeper than just the impact of sequestration.

The disparity between the Stockdale and ships such as the Mount Whitney is due to the high demand for carrier strike groups from combatant commanders — four-star officers who request forces for their area of responsibility, said Bryan Clark, a former top aide to Greenert.

The decision whether to send forces is made by the Joint Chiefs and, ultimately, by the Office of the Secretary of Defense. In 2011 through much of 2013, the Navy was required to have two carriers in 5th Fleet, a requirement that was dropped because of sequestration.

“From 2011 through 2013, COCOMs asked for more and more carrier strike group time, and the secretary and chairman of the Joint Chiefs gave it to them — especially [U.S.] Central Command,” Clark said, referring to the area of responsibility in the Middle East. “The Navy suffered, and to little strategic effect. Iran, we are told, came to the bargaining table on its nuclear program because of sanctions, not CSG deployments.”

Clark said that despite the respite from having two carriers in 5th Fleet, as well as a carrier in the Pacific, the high demands placed on an even smaller fleet could greatly increase the strain.

“Who will stand up for a strategic approach and one that considers our people and the long-term sustainability of the force?” Clark said.

What's being done?

Nobody in the Navy is happy with how things are for ships such as the Stennis, which had back-to-back long deployments during the 36-month cycle.

Greenert has said repeatedly that if the Navy gets smaller, instead of even longer deployments, the fleet’s forward presence will drop.

Under a plan proposed by fleet boss Adm. Bill Gortney, the entire surface fleet will be on a 36-month cycle, with an eight-month deployment factored in; there is a 14-month sustainment window in which ships could be deployed again.

Gortney’s goal is to have all ships in port about 68 percent of the time during the three-year stretch.

That’s not too far off the fleetwide average right now, but it’s certainly not anywhere close to high op-tempo ships like the Stockdale and the Gettysburg.

But with the budget future still murky and with questions outstanding about the future of the carrier fleet, it may be some time before these kinds of disparities can be ironed out.

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