A typical carrier deployment from Norfolk follows a predictable cycle:
A tearful goodbye on the pier, a trip across the Atlantic, followed by one or two port visits in Europe before heading through “The Ditch” and into U.S. Central Command territory. There you will stay for several months before returning the way you came.
Those days might soon be coming to an end.
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has offered a very different vision for how the Navy will be used in the future and hinted at big changes on the horizon for how and when carrier strike groups deploy.
What Mattis is after is less predictability, a desire to keep potential adversaries on their toes, preserve the ability to surge strike groups to nontraditional places at unexpected times, as well as the ability to do so on short notice.
In testimony last month, Mattis twice compared the Navy’s current rotational deployments — often planned years in advance — to running a commercial shipping operation, and said the Navy needed to get away from the predictable.
“That’s a great way to run a shipping line,” Mattis told the House Armed Services Committee on April 12. “It’s no way to run a Navy.”
But as Mattis drives toward new ways of employing the fleet, that will inevitablly put pressure on the existing deployment model, forcing the Navy to rethink the way it does everything — from manning and training to its maintenance cycles.
Mattis says the shift is a necessity in this renewed era of great-power competition with peer rivals China and Russia.
He’s looking for ways to be more daunting to a potential adversary while, at the same time, less burdensome to the fleet and its families.
“The way you do this is we ensure that preparation for great power competition drives not simply a rotational schedule that allows me to tell you, three years from now, which aircraft carrier will be where in the world,” he told House lawmakers.
Mattis added that such a schedule could increase readiness and help better sustain it.
“When we send them out, it may be for a shorter deployment. There will be three carriers in the South China Sea today, and then, two weeks from now, there’s only one there, and two of them are in the Indian Ocean.
“They’ll be home at the end of a 90-day deployment. They will not have spent eight months at sea, and we are going to have a force more ready to surge and deal with the high-end warfare as a result, without breaking the families, the maintenance cycles. We’ll actually enhance the training time.”
Such a change, if implemented, would have far-reaching impacts on sailors.
“The end result for sailors would be less predictability on when they’ll deploy, but shorter times away from home when they do,” said a Navy official familiar with the discussions.
“It’s a tradeoff of sorts, but one that is manageable if we make sure we’re communicating this up front and in advance ahead of time,” the official said. “Sailors realize their business is to answer the nation’s call when needed. It’s just a change in how that is done, and this generation understands that.”
O-FRP UNDER PRESSURE
At first glance, Mattis’ vision appears to run counter to the Navy’s existing Optimized Fleet Response Plan, known as O-FRP, which sets out a working plan for maintenance and training before a ship is deemed ready to deploy. The O-FRP also establishes clear expectations on when sailors will leave and return.
The plan Mattis outlined on Capitol Hill, however, suggests that the Navy’s worldwide fleet might operate more like the Forward Deployed Naval Forces in Japan and Rota, Spain, which deploy more often but for shorter periods of time.
The O-FRP was introduced in 2014 by then-Fleet Forces Commander Adm. Bill Gortney.
It calls for ships to operate in a 36-month cycle that carves out 16 months for training and maintenance, a seven-month deployment, and 13 months where the carrier and the rest of its strike group are expected to maintain a high level of readiness in the event the group needs to deploy again.
That deployment model is at the core of nearly everything the Navy does, impacting everything from when the Navy brings in new recruits to boot camp to when an aircraft carrier needs to come out of its years-long reactor overhaul.
“The O-FRP is really kind of a readiness generation engine,” said Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson. “And it takes about 18 months to maintain and train forces ready to fight to get them ready and fully certified for the high end. Then, there’s about 18 months or so of those forces being ready to be employed.”
It’s also a system that builds in a significant dip in readiness where, during maintenance phases, ships lose sailors with critical skills to other commands and shore duty assignments.
The key to all those things, however, is predictability. Shipyards need to know when they will have a ship arrive and what the scope of the repair work will be so sufficient preparations can be made in advance.
School houses need to know when to convene classes, and commanding officers need to know, when they get ready for deployment, which sailors with critical skills will be lost and need replacing before the next cruise.
Predictability, however, is precisely what Mattis is trying to have less of in the face of a rising threat from Russia and China, said Bryan McGrath, a retired destroyer skipper and consultant with The FerryBridge Group.
“[Optimized Fleet Response Plan] was designed to be predictable,” McGrath said. “From the outset, it was touted for bringing predictability to the shipyards and to sailors and their families. Secretary Mattis, in the face of great power competition, seems to value those things less, and I could not agree with him more.”
“I think what we’re seeing, the United States naval forces, the Navy/Marine Corps team, they are a maneuver force by their nature,” Richardson said. “You can use this very seamless environment of the ocean, below, on and above the surface, cyber space, up into space — all of that to be very dynamic.”
Mattis’ plan, according to Navy officials, is not necessarily at odds with the broad outlines of O-FRP.
“We already have roughly six to eight months of deployment time built into the schedule, and that’s followed by roughly 12 to 14 months of a sustainment phase where they continue to go to sea and train but are ready to surge if needed,” the official said.
“This idea essentially combines the deployment and periods into one while keeping the maintenance and initial spin-up in place — the O-FRP is flexible enough to handle that right now.”
Once a ship enters this strategic “on deck” circle, they would begin regular maintenance and training phases again, starting the process over, which is precisely what happens today, the official said.
Yet, for sailors, the impact could be dramatic.
Mattis said that under the proposed plan, deployments of up to 90 days would be more the norm if the ships are needed, but would not be mandatory.
“So, during the time when they would be authorized to deploy, directed to deploy, they may not deploy out of home waters,” Mattis told lawmakers.
Richardson confirmed as much, saying, “the idea here is to one, restore maneuver to the United States Navy as a global maneuver force, our nation’s first response force, and then to do so in a way that moves us towards great power kind of thinking and departs — or rebalances I would better say — with respect to the war on violent extremism.
“So I would expect to see naval force elements move around in a much more dynamic and underway.”
What Mattis seems to value is a system that would bank more readiness.
His suggestion of sending ships on more 90-day deployments would put less strain on ships’ mechanical and electronic systems and would make shipyard availabilities shorter.
But his suggestion of putting three carriers in a place like the South China Sea would eat away enormously at the amount of readiness under the current deployment model because the Navy would not only have to gather three fully manned carriers and all their escort ships, but three air wings full of tactical aircraft that have been notably struggling with their own readiness issues.
One way around that would be to focus more on a system that banks readiness rather than uses it for rotational deployments, but that would mean rethinking how the Navy has employed its forces since World War II.
It would also mean that Mattis is seeking to change the underlying assumptions the Navy has been operating under.
“You can bank readiness by decreasing forward presence,” he said. “That is, if you have fewer forces forward deployed for the hell of it, you have more for pushing forward when you want them. In other words, it’s punishment rather than deterrence. You surge after the enemy has made its move.
“Whereas if you want to deter them — to convince the enemy that the success of their planned attack is dubious — you have to be there and be there powerfully, and that means a carrier strike group forward.”
Another way to put three carriers forward in one place on a semi-regular basis is to use the sustainment period that is built into O-FRP.
But sending a carrier group back out during a 13-month period after a deployment, where the group is operating at a high state of readiness, undermines one of Mattis’s stated goals of trying to put less wear on the ships and ease the burden of eight-month deployments on families.
That is precisely the kind of unpredictability and strain that has caused a mountain of maintenance problems for the Navy throughout the 2010s, problems that then reduce operational availability of ships that are stuck in the yards for repairs.
“The Navy has not done much with the sustainment phase in O-FRP, but. presumably. that will be one of the go-to moves to create flexibility and unpredictability in the schedule,” McGrath said. “There will, of course, be costs: fuel costs, less time with families, etc.
“It remains to be seen the degree to which Mattis’ plans are doable within to the current readiness model. My sense is the readiness model is somewhat brittle, and additional requirements will put pressure on that model. The current OFRP was designed to create predictable, sustainable levels of readiness. SECDEF wants to be unpredictable. There is going to be tension.”
David B. Larter was the naval warfare reporter for Defense News.
Mark D. Faram is a former reporter for Navy Times. He was a senior writer covering personnel, cultural and historical issues. A nine-year active duty Navy veteran, Faram served from 1978 to 1987 as a Navy Diver and photographer.