Enterprise was once the pride of the fleet — the first nuclear-powered carrier poised to lead a nation into a new age. Now, her rusting hull is a shadow of what it once was, and the sailors tasked with seeing her into the sunset are paying a steep price.
Indeed, Career Advancement is atrocious on the Big E and getting worse. is in a downward spiral aboard the carrier Enterprise. Petty officer advancementpromotion rates this past year were far consistently below Navy averages — sometimes by half — while exam failure rates nearly tripled.
The crew's rate of failing the test for E-4, E-5 and E-6 was 17.5 percent, nearly six times the Navy's overall failure rate. 7 perceent failur rateThe ship had 19 failures in the fall, 15 of which were E5s. That 6.96 percent failure rate stood in stark contrast to the Navy-wide rate of 1.83 percent. Things only got worse in the spring cycle when the carrier suffered 37 failures: One E4, 24 E5s, and 12 E6s. The combined 17.54 percent fail rate was more than double the last cycle and nearly six times greater than the Navy-wide fail rate of 3.08 percent. Big E's E5s suffered most, with a 27.27 percent fail rate; the E6 fail rate came in at 12 percent.
Crew members say who spoke with Navy Times said the problem is clear: the defueling crew is undermanned and has little time to study or work in-rating as they labor to dismantle the Navy has written off Big E though she is still in the process of the necessary defueling required to fully decommission the historic ship.
"I understand this is the Navy's first time defueling a carrier, so there is a learning curve," one first class said. "I hope the Navy learned its lesson, because a lot of these sailors paid a heavy price."
The first class, like others, asked for anonymity out of concern for his career. Most shared a sailors asked not to be identified for fear of reprisal, but all shared a similar tale: Lack of personnel has hundreds of sailors working outside of their rating. That is not uncommon for ships in the yard, but this crew is so undermanned that sailors can't visit other ships for critical, hands-on experience. An early attempt to coordinate temporary assignments "was a complete failure," according to one petty officer. Now, sailors get a one-week rating refresher, at best, but that isn't enough. One first class said half the material he saw on the chief test was new to him.
The Enterprise leaders did not respond to requests for comment about theirthe carrier's dismal advancement rates, and Naval Air Force Atlantic and Fleet Forces Command did not provide a comment by press time July 2.
Enterprise's decommissioning crew has roughly 600 crewmembers, and about half are nukes. The medical department is slated to debark in the coming months. The overwhelming majority of remaining personnel are out of their rating. For example, security has about 160 people, but fewer than 10 percent are masters at arms. The senior enlisted leader is a hard-charging master chief, but none of his khakis are MAs and most of his MA1s left this summer. Petty officers from other ratings are having to pick up the slack. The leading chief petty officer was described as a hard-charging master chief who hit the ground running, but none of his khakis are MAs by trade. Roughly half of his first-class MAs transferred out earlier this summer, and were replaced by junior sailors. The carrier now has fewer than half a dozen first-class MAs, which means other first class petty officers (who are already out of their rating) have to take up additional slack.
Every crew member with whom Navy Times spoke vehemently defended the command leaders, saying that the chief's mess had made repeated requests for more staff — to no avail. and said leadership is doing everything it can to help. It is understood in the chief's mess and on the deckplate that repeated requests for more people have been made, to no avail. One chief commended the efforts of commanders as "evident and exhausting."
Requests to address this with leadership were not answered by press time.
"There is no doubt, the Navy let way too many people go," one second class petty officer said. "But the ones who left are the lucky ones. The ones who are stuck here, the only hope you have of getting promoted is to study 24 hours a day, or get [a meritorious promotion in the Command Advancement Program]."
One gunner's mate said life isn't so bad for him because he is working within his rating, breaking down guns and such. But with regard to his shipmates, he added, "it sucks being them."
"[Aviation ordnancemen] aren't working with bombs. [Electrician's mates] aren't working with electricity. [Damage controlmen] aren't battling fires," he said. "They are carrying M4s or a 240, and they aren't happy about it."
Enterprise was commissioned in 1961. By the time of its deactivation on Dec. 1, 2012, the carrier shehad more than 400,000 traps, served in 10 major operations, and conducted 25 deployments. On May 2, shethe Big E entered Newport News Shipbuilding's Dry Dock 11 — its original birthplace — where the ship'sher eight reactors will be defueled and hull will be prepared for final dismantlement.
The unprecedented defueling effort should be a lesson for the crewing as the Navy prepares to start inactivating Nimitz-class nuclear carriers, starting with the Nimitz in perhaps what could be as soon as seven years. What's unclear if the Navy's lesson's learned from the inactivation of Enterprise will be applied to the next aircraft carrier deactivation -- the Nimitz. But some familiar with the issue believe the Navy needs to keep the sailors doing this necessary, but tough job in mind as they plan future deactivations of nuclear carriers — which could begin in as few as seven years.
According to a recent Congressional Research Service report dated June 12, 2015, the Nimitz will begin its inactivation around 2022, when the the future carrier John F. Kennedy is delivered. "the delivery of the USS John F. Kennedy (CVN 79) ...would be concurrent with the inactivation of the USS Nimitz." Right now, the report said delivery of the Kennedy, which is slated to be formally laid down next month, will be in June, 2022 the report said.
"It's coming sooner than you think and after that, we'll be deactivating a nuclear aircraft carrier every five to six years or so as we bring the Ford-class carriers into service," said a senior Navy aviation official, speaking on background. "It's work that has to be done and will require sailors to do it — we as a Navy get better as we do things multiple times and I hope this situation is one of those learning moments."
Staff writer Mark D. Faram contributed to this report.