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Strike group sailors get more time at sea, stability

Apr. 22, 2013 - 07:41AM   |  
The carrier Dwight D. Eisenhower passes the guided-missile destroyer Jason Dunham during a transit of the Suez Canal. Under a new plan, carrier strike groups face more time deployed but also more predictable schedules.
The carrier Dwight D. Eisenhower passes the guided-missile destroyer Jason Dunham during a transit of the Suez Canal. Under a new plan, carrier strike groups face more time deployed but also more predictable schedules. (MC2 Deven B. King / Navy)
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Strike group sailors may soon attain something they’ve lacked for the past decade: solid schedules.

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Strike group sailors may soon attain something they’ve lacked for the past decade: solid schedules.

Aircraft carriers and their escorts will shift next year to a radically new deployment plan that offers more scheduling certainty with a trade-off — more time deployed. Under the new regime, a carrier strike group will undergo one work-up cycle and then deploy twice before heading into an overhaul back home. Each cruise lasts seven months.

Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jon Greenert, who has ordered the plan to go forward, said it will give sailors more “predictable” deployments while providing the “maximum presence” called for in the Pentagon’s latest strategy.

“I kind of like it because it more readily defines the reality that we have seen and the reality that we see in the future,” Greenert said of the plan March 26, before details were revealed.

By boosting carrier presence overseas, Navy officials say, the service will shift carriers between the operational fleets and will be less prone to “surge” the ships, an abrupt process that disrupts sailors’ lives.

The plan has plenty of implications for flattop sailors. The biggest: Many sailors and officers will need to make both seven-month deployments because there is only one work-up, locking them in for as long as 22 months. Manpower and fleet officials are still working through how to implement the new deployment model, which the first aircraft carrier — Navy officials haven’t decided which one — is expected to begin by the end of 2014.

While the plan may be more efficient, former fleet leaders cautioned it may be challenging to implement, and the two biggest obstacles to the Navy’s previous fleet blueprints — budgets and crises — remain threats to the latest plan.

“The challenge in executing such a plan is that it is often overcome by world events and budgetary realities,” said retired Capt. Rick Hoffman, who served as the Enterprise Battle Group’s operations officer. “It also tends to be carrier-centric, with the needs of the air wing and escorts compromised to meet the set-in-stone deployment plan.”

The Navy confronts a math problem: fewer aircraft carriers despite increasing demand for them. Over the past three years, carrier sailors have felt the resulting strain.

After only six months at home, the John C. Stennis left for a surge deployment late last summer that has now entered its eighth month. Similarly, the Dwight D. Eisenhower split back-to-back 5th Fleet deployments with a two-month stay in Norfolk, Va., after repair delays kept another carrier tied up; Ike sailors will spent as many as 11 of 13 months at sea.

Carrier cruises average 7½ months. Amphibs have seen even longer ones. Even cruisers and destroyers are feeling the effects: The destroyer Paul Hamilton is eight months through what’s expected to be a 10-month cruise, among the longest in decades.

Overseas demands are not expected to ebb while nations such as Iran and North Korea continue to make threats against the U.S. and its allies, and carriers are key players in the Pentagon’s so-called “pivot” toward the western Pacific. Meanwhile, the fleet is down to nine carriers for the next few years, with the Abraham Lincoln beginning a midlife refueling and overhaul process that typically lasts 18 months.

Meeting the need

With so much demand for carriers, the Navy had two options — longer deployments or more deployments. The Navy chose more.

The rationale: Short-notice and long deployments are already stretching crews and shipyards. By deploying each carrier more frequently, officials believe they’ll be able to limit the number of surge deployments and return some normalcy to ship schedules — as in the days before Sept. 11, 2001, when ships deployed on schedule.

“The plan would be to get back to being predictable,” said Rear Adm. James Foggo, the director of the Navy’s Assessment Division, which is based at the Pentagon. “Ideally, we would like to tell the sailors in our fleet that you will deploy on this date, you will return on this date, you will deploy on this date, you will return on this date. So we’re trying to get away from that surge response that is unpredictable and is impacting our [personnel tempo] and time back in home port.”

After reviewing the fleet’s recent deployment pace, Foggo’s operations analysts concluded it was exceeding the Navy’s long-term needs for ship upkeep and sailor happiness and that a new model could strike a better balance. Foggo estimated that the new plan, the “Enhanced Carrier Strike Group Presence Model,” could boost carrier presence overseas by 40 percent while increasing costs only 20 percent.

Navy leaders are now lobbying for an additional $2.4 billion required by the new plan to maintain the air wing’s proficiency between deployments and to fund more robust overhauls needed after the ship returns after more days deployed, officials said. The plan boosts the number of months each carrier is deployed in a given cycle from 10.4, the current average, to 14, according to Navy estimates.

Fleet leaders plan to start the new schedule in late 2014 with a carrier coming out of overhaul. One by one, this 36-month cycle will expand to include eight flattops over the next several years. Only the George Washington is exempt; the Yokosuka, Japan-based vessel has its own patrol schedule and is already counted as a deployed carrier.

It also will affect escorts, including destroyers, cruisers and attack submarines. Those assigned to a CSG will be required to accompany their carrier on both seven-month deployments.

When a strike group is needed to respond to a crisis, the plan calls for shifting one of the four deployed carriers to that region rather than surging a pierside ship.

“It’s not beyond reason to think that [if] something happens in one theater, you have one or two carrier strike groups operating out there, you move one to the next theater rather than having to surge that capacity from the continental United States,” Foggo said in an April 18 interview at the Pentagon.

Keeping ‘key leadership’

The largest unresolved question concerns manning: deciding who stays onboard for both deployments over 22 months, since the ship goes through only one training certification. Will the commanding and executive officers stay the same? Pilots and shooters? Chiefs and officers? All hands?

“Ideally, we would want everybody who starts this cycle to finish this cycle,” Foggo said. “Now, there will be some [projected rotation dates]. If somebody’s enlistment is coming up, we’ll take a look at that in advance. There are some special skill sets where we’ll have to look hard at individuals and their ratings.

“You start the cycle, you finish the cycle with the team,” Foggo added.

The current thinking is to require leaders and tactical watchstanders onboard the carrier, air wing and escort ships to stay onboard for both cruises. Officials would not estimate what percentage of the strike group they want to remain through the deployments, saying they didn’t have a specific target and are studying whom to keep.

“This is not just about officers,” said Rear Adm. Phil Davidson, the director of maritime operations at Fleet Forces Command, who is overseeing fleet implementation. “It is important to keep key leadership on the deck plates, as well.”

But the insistence on keeping the same crew members runs counter to the Navy’s current system, which allows sailors — even skippers — to transfer mid-deployment, one former CO noted. This new policy could unfairly deny other officers deployed opportunities or even keep an underperforming watch team in place.

“Management of key leadership should not be part of the policy,” said Hoffman, the former ops boss who commanded the cruiser Hue City and who reviewed the new policy. “In the case of the air wing and the surface combatants, there is a fleet up process in place. So between the first and second deployments in the cycle, the XO is highly qualified and prepared to take command.” If the XO doesn’t fleet up — or, in the case of cruisers, the CO stays put — he said, “you have a cycle where every other CO gets two deployments, XO fleet-ups for the upkeeps. Doesn’t sound like fun to me.”

On the other hand, if COs are allowed to rotate and XOs can fleet up under the new system, it may give more officers a shot to command a deployed squadron or ship. And it has the added advantage of providing more bang for each training buck, a retired three-star said.

“This is a good deal for the more senior guys because you get to have operational experience,” said retired Vice Adm. Lou Crenshaw, an aviator who commanded the John F. Kennedy Battle Group. “Sometimes you might wind up as a squadron executive officer and never be a commanding officer on a deployment.”

The challenge will be maintaining the air wing’s quals during the seven months between deployments, Crenshaw said, noting that they will need to go out as often as once a month to keep up their quals, with enough touch-and-goes and night traps to stay current.

Overall, some will like the new plan and some won’t, he surmised.

“My guess would be the flight crews would probably think this is a pretty good idea, not so sure about the maintenance crews,” Crenshaw added. “That’s where the big leadership challenge comes in.”

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