Crises in the world's most volatile regions could spell longer deployments and more uncertainty for fleet sailors.
The tense waters of Asia-Pacific or the Middle East could go for weeks or months without a U.S. aircraft carrier patrolling there this spring. But military planners are weighing whether this is the right moment to drop carrier presence, with strikes against Islamic State militants intensifying, rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and North Korea's hydrogen bomb test. The other options are to cut one carrier's needed maintenance short or extend a crew's deployment beyond the 7-month goal — both unsavory options for fleet bosses.
At issue is a weeks-long period between when the Harry S. Truman Carrier Strike Group heads home from the Gulf in May and when the Dwight D. Eisenhower CSG deploys later that summer. That leaves the John C. Stennis CSG, which deploys in a few weeks, as the only flattop in either 5th or 7th Fleet.
Another option is abruptly canceling the carrier Ronald Reagan's overhaul. The flattop recently arrived in Japan and needs maintenance before preparing for its patrol this summer.
The Navy declined to comment specifically on the looming carrier gap — precise deployment dates are not releasable to the public — but Navy spokesman Lt. Cmdr. Tim Hawkins said that leadership was constantly reviewing deployments.
"It's important to keep in mind that military leaders continually review force requirements and adjust global force management plans accordingly,” Hawkins said. “Naval forces are inherently flexible, agile and will continue to be where it matters, when it matters.”
None of the options facing the fleet and combatant commanders are good, according to officials familiar with the internal deliberations.
If the Navy pulls the carrier from U.S. Central Command in favor of dispatching Stennis to U.S. Pacific Command, it will be the second time within a year that the fight with ISIS will lack a flattop. The ultimate decision will rest with Gen. Joe Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and Defense Secretary Ash Carter.
Fleet Forces Command was tasked in 2014 by the Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert to get deployments down to seven months from as long as 10 months, a goal the current CNO Adm. John Richardson has committed to. But in order to close the looming carrier gap, the Navy will either have to extend Truman’s seven-month deployment to eight months or more, or curtail Reagan’s maintenance period in Japan. Cutting carrier maintenance, especially after years of straining optempo, is a step fleet bosses have pushed to avoid.
All CSG and amphibious ready group deployments under the new deployment rotation plan are scheduled for seven months, according to Fleet Forces Command spokesman Cmdr. John Gay.
All of this comes at a time when the fleet is attempting to reset after years of hard use, including a two-year period between 2011 and 2013 when the Navy was required to keep two CSGs in 5th Fleet. The Optimized Fleet Response Plan was designed to give the Navy the time and space to fix its ships and give sailors, who have borne the brunt of the deployment uncertainty, time to recover.
Work stoppages in the Navy-run public shipyards due to automatic spending cuts called sequestration also created maintenance delays, further reducing the readiness of the fleet.
Extending deployments and returning to uncertainty would take a toll on sailors and their families, said one former FFC leader.
“How much will the sailors and their families sustain in an all-volunteer force before you start harming retention,” said retired Adm. John Harvey, who commanded FFC until 2012. “You do a back-to back deployment like [carrier Eisenhower] did in 2012/2013, you pay for that.”
Harvey said the issues the Navy is facing are the result of the meeting combatant commander requirements beyond its capacity, including the stretch from 2011 to 2013 when the Navy was required to have two carriers in the gulf and one in the Pacific at all times.
“There is no easy way to take a 10-carrier force and operate it like you have 16,” Harvey said. “At some point the wheels will come off the cart.”
And the fleet will continue to be a 10-carrier force for most of the decade. The fleet has been at 10 carriers since the carrier Enterprise was decommissioned in 2013 and stayed at that figure because of delays in the deployment date of carrier Gerald R. Ford, said Bryan Clark, a retired submarine officer and analyst with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.
“It was supposed to be a 14-month gap at 10 carriers and now the gap will be almost 8 years with shock testing being added to the Ford’s pre-deployment preparations,” Clark said. In August, the Pentagon ordered the Navy to run shock trials on Ford before she deploys, further delaying the Navy’s newest ship.
Still, Clark argues that the COCOMs should just make do with the reduced presence so as not to endanger the Navy's future ability to generate force.
“There will likely be more security challenges going forward, rather than less, as China continues to pursue its ambitions, North Korea strives to get attention, Russia looks to shift attention from its domestic problems, and ISIS tries to regain the initiative,” Clark said.
“The U.S. should take this time, although it may mean less carrier presence now, to get the fleet back in good shape to prepare for a decade in which the U.S. will need to reassert its role as an enforcer of global norms.”
For many observers, the carrier gaps are the result of delays created primarily by ill-considered cuts to the Navy’s budget and force structure.
“We are reaping the consequences of our actions,” said Bryan McGrath, a retired destroyer skipper and influential consultant with the FerryBridge Group. “We cut too deeply in the face of mounting requirements and we’re either going to have to figure this out on our own, or we are going to be forced into figuring it out by a calamity.”