ARLINGTON, Va. — The U.S. Navy is pursuing several efforts meant to make it easier for the East Coast fleet to deploy ships in new ways — and potentially in greater numbers — to the European theater.
U.S. Fleet Forces Command is working on an initiative to make destroyers more independent of carrier strike groups during the deployment phase of the Navy’s force-generation plan, even as Naval Surface Forces is working to make them more operationally available in the sustainment phase that follows.
Fleet Forces commander Adm. Daryl Caudle said this month he’s tasked a cross-functional team with reconsidering the Optimized Fleet Response Plan, the Navy’s force-generation model that outlines how ships should move through maintenance, training and deployments. This model today has an entire carrier strike group move through the three-year cycle together.
Caudle told Defense News in May 2022 the Navy was struggling to get destroyers’ maintenance done on time, potentially throwing off the entire strike group. Linking the destroyers with the group also means some destroyers can’t head to places where they could be more useful elsewhere. And it makes it quite challenging to bring new ships into the strike group later on, whether to replace a ship that needs repairs or to bolster the strike group.
“Our ships should not have to work up together to fight effectively together,” he said last week at the annual Surface Navy Association conference.
After his speech, he told Defense News the plan assumes that if a group of ships doesn’t go through pre-deployment training together, “then it can’t work well together, it can’t communicate well, the strike group commander won’t know the commanding officers.”
It’s thought these “soft connections” are needed to bind six or seven ships together under a strike group commander, he added.
“I’m challenging that assumption,” Caudle continued, noting he’d rather see a “core” strike group of the aircraft carrier, one cruiser and an oiler go through OFRP together, and the destroyers independently cycle through maintenance, training and deployments.
“I want our networks to be able to work, regardless if you work up together. I want us to be able to plug and play, regardless if you work up together. If a ship is ready to go to 6th Fleet, we send it to 6th Fleet,” he said. “By decoupling the destroyer/cruiser OFRP from the [aircraft carrier] OFRP, I think I can deliver more deployed forces to the European theater, and I think I actually model the way we’ll actually fight in the future better.”
Caudle raised this idea with Defense News last year and has since tasked Fleet Forces’ Director of Fleet Integrated Readiness and Analysis Rear Adm. Robert Westendorff with assembling the cross-functional team to examine OFRP.
Caudle said last year he’d likely have to beef up the carrier strike group staff, which relies on the cruiser to serve as the air defense commander and the destroyer squadron to serve as the sea combat commander. If a cruiser breaks down during a deployment — which is happening more frequently as the ships age and their material condition deteriorates — it’s tough to swap in a new hull and crew who can effectively and seamless provide air defense for a capital asset.
He added last year the destroyers would be trained and certified for all the usual mission areas, but then he could choose whether to push them forward to serve in a carrier strike group, keep them home to conduct training and experimentation or deploy them in other formations such as surface action groups.
This notion ties into a separate initiative by Vice Adm. Roy Kitchener, the commander of Naval Surface Forces, to create more ready ships. He announced the effort at the 2022 Surface Navy Association conference and, at this year’s event, added that his command is aiming to have 75 mission-capable surface ships available for tasking at any given time.
Caudle told Defense News last week OFRP creates a bathtub in readiness for destroyers: once they return home from a carrier strike group deployment, the Navy allows their readiness to drop — they offload munitions to give to other ships, they lose some personnel, and they’re de-prioritized for maintenance.
Kitchener’s effort would closely track readiness metrics of all surface ships and ensure 75 are either combat-ready or only a few quick measures away from being combat-ready. Caudle’s effort could help, creating less variance in readiness for destroyers since they might come and go throughout the deployment and sustainment phases of OFRP, rather than deploying with a strike group and dropping in readiness upon their return.
These efforts are meant to make the Navy’s East Coast fleet ready to fight Russia or another aggressor, Caudle said in his speech last week.
“To capitalize on our Navy’s greatest strength — its ability to distribute and concentrate lethal effects at our timing and tempo — our command and control must be agile,” the admiral said. “In conflict, this will be absolutely necessary. So, why aren’t we building our force to mirror that today?”
Megan Eckstein is the naval warfare reporter at Defense News. She has covered military news since 2009, with a focus on U.S. Navy and Marine Corps operations, acquisition programs and budgets. She has reported from four geographic fleets and is happiest when she’s filing stories from a ship. Megan is a University of Maryland alumna.