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Navy Stands Firm on Supply-Based Carrier Presence Model, Joint Forces Will Cover Gaps

USS George Washington (CVN-73) and its strike group in 2013. The House voted to refuel the carrier rather than decommission the ship. US Navy Photo

USS George Washington (CVN-73) and its strike group in 2013. US Navy Photo

Two Navy officials met with lawmakers today to explain the Optimized Fleet Response Plan (OFRP) for generating ready forces and the importance of sticking to the plan, which attempts to keep a stable maintenance and deployment cycle amid an uncertain world, despite the challenges associated with it.

Rear Adm. Jeffrey Harley, assistant deputy chief of naval operations for operations, plans and strategy (OPNAV N3/5B), said repeatedly that OFRP is a “sustainable model” that is predicated on six-month maintenance availabilities that don’t run long and seven-month deployments that are not extended.

He acknowledged that unexpected events could alter carrier strike group deployment schedules, noting that a contingency overseas or a significant maintenance discovery leading up to a ship’s availability could alter the intricate nine-year cycle the Navy has mapped out for each of its carriers and their associated strike groups.

“Real world events will cause changes to the production plan – if somebody’s maintenance gets extended beyond our ability to absorb it within the shock absorber that’s built into the Optimized Fleet Response Plan, we would have to adjust accordingly and modify the schedules to be able to do that,” he told the House Armed Services readiness subcommittee.
“We have the capacity to do that. We’ve picked a seven-month deployment in particular to give us flexibility if we really had to go to eight months. It’s not optimal, it’s not what we want to do … but it is one of the options available to us.”

The other option, he said, “is to reduce our global input as to what we can provide [to the combatant commanders] for a designated period of time, and mitigate that presence, that carrier presence, in some other way using our joint partners, using joint aircraft to cover a gap in time in which we may not have a carrier present.”

After the hearing, Harley told USNI News that “it’s [the chief of naval operations’] stated position that seven months is our goal. Any requirement to go past seven months is something that would likely be directed by the secretary of defense” in response to a crisis overseas. Therefore, in most circumstances, disruptions to the OFRP would lead to a lack of overseas presence for some duration of time, rather than breaking the CNO’s promise to sailors to keep deployments short.

In the past, the Navy tried to operate under a demand-based model, in which the service tried to churn out as many ready strike groups as it could to meet the needs of the combatant commanders. But sailors were burnt out from long and sometimes unexpectedly-extended deployments, the ships’ material readiness suffered because maintenance availabilities were sometimes skipped to meet deployment needs, and maintenance work grew more expensive because the Navy could not commit to a timeline and a work scope in advance.

OFRP seeks to fix those problems by offering a stable cycle of maintenance, training, deployment and sustainment periods mapped out years in advance. At issue, however, is that the supply-based model leaves combatant commanders without as much presence as they want. Under OFRP, the Navy would only produce two carrier strike groups that could be deployed at any given time, with three CSGs at home ready to surge if needed. One deployed battle group would likely go to U.S. Central Command and the other to U.S. Pacific Command, but a contingency elsewhere could pull one of those CSGs away and leave an area without a carrier for a short period of time. There will also likely be gaps between when one carrier leaves and the next arrives – a situation the Middle East will face later this fall, when USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71) leaves and its replacement does not arrive for another month or two.

Harley would not characterize OFRP as the cause of carrier gaps, but rather said the plan allows the Navy to generate an optimal amount of ready forces and the Joint Forces would decide how to employ them.

Several admirals told USNI News that they were concerned about carrier gaps under OFRP, however. Small gaps in carrier presence in the Middle East or Western Pacific would not represent much risk if the Navy were able to keep the three surge CSGs at a high level of readiness during the 14-month sustainment phase at the end of the OFRP cycle. However, the admirals said the sustainment phase currently has no funding tied to it, meaning the battle group would fall to a reduced state of readiness and be unable to deploy at a moment’s notice to cover the carrier gap – or to address a crisis in a different part of the world – if needed.

Also during the hearing, Director of Fleet Readiness (OPNAV N43) Capt. Thom Burke said the Navy would need to be disciplined in its maintenance work for OFRP to stay on track. The Navy aims to complete at least 60 percent of its ship maintenance availabilities on time and on schedule, but “we haven’t met that in two and a half years.” Burke guessed that the current figure for staying on time and cost is “probably in the 40s right now.”

As the Navy tries to get that figure back on track with the introduction of OFRP, the federal budget situation threatens to delay some availabilities. Congress has not yet passed a spending bill for Fiscal Year 2016, which begins Oct. 1, and will likely have to pass a continuing resolution to keep FY 2015 spending levels in place for a period of time.

Harley said during the hearing that the budget situation “creates the uncertainty and unpredictability that has the potential to destabilize our naval execution of the fleet response plan and the optimized fleet response plan.”

Burke said after the hearing that the extent of the damage done by a continuing resolution would depend on how long it lasts.

“If it’s a short CR, probably not much of an impact because we can work through it, we can work the funding we have to get those availabilities at the beginning of the year started,” he said.
“If it goes on and on, I’ll be able to tell you by hull number which availabilities get canceled next summer.”

  • Curtis Conway

    “In the past, the Navy tried to operate under a demand-based model . . . But sailors were burnt out from long and sometimes unexpectedly-extended deployments, the ships’ material readiness suffered because maintenance availabilities were sometimes skipped to meet deployment needs, . . .”.

    This is the ‘meat and potatoes’ of this article. Maintenance of a six month cycle could be maintained by introducing the Light Carrier Battle Group (CVLBG model) to the mix. The Carrier Strike Group (CSG) deployment requirement would be met by the CVLBG which is in essence an enhanced Expeditionary Strike Group. The USS
    America (LHA-6) Class vessel would employ an augmented Marine Air Group (MAG) with 20 total F-35Bs, Aegis escort, ASW screen, and logistics support ships as required. The CVLGB would be missing some mission sets like Air Early Warning & Control (AEW&C), and Electronic Attack (EA). However, in some specific
    areas of the planet those mission sets can be supported through shore based
    operations if required. Those crews can join the brief virtually. Not every
    contingency or operation requires the capabilities of a whole Carrier Air Group.

    The difficulty is that the CVNs maintenance, and that of all the ships in the CSG, may not be able to be accomplished in the amount of time available. That is still a problem with the current schedule. Another factor is the Marine Air Ground Task Forces (MAGTF) are responding to Humanitarian Missions (as they should) and many times disrupts their employment schedules. Adding an additional CVLBG/ESG
    to the mix is much easier and less expensive than adding an additional CSG. If the maintenance requirements can be scheduled within the six month cycle, is the issue. Loss of shipyards across the country is the enabling factor that I believe is in jeopardy. I would like to see the percentage of assigned work accomplishment between Navy Shipyards and Private shipyard comparisons.

    This is my take from the outside looking in.

    • taxman

      This sounds good on paper HOWEVER the F 35B is still years away from realistically be integrated into fleet ops. What does the fleet do until then? Do we rely on the aged obsolete Harrier?

      • Curtis Conway

        The F-35B WILL Deploy in a year or so. General Bogdon has already stated that it is time for the JSF Program to start ramping up, and . . . the numbers of platforms will follow. Combat System maturity over the next two years, and experience by the crews will begin to reveal the actual capability of this very capable aircraft. Improved situational awareness alone will be a huge advantage for the individual F-35 (any flavor). One CANNOT sneak up on an F-35.

        We have seen a lot of hay made from the argument of competing an F-16 against an F-35, but I have seen NO comparisons of the AV-8B, even in its current most advanced form, against the F-35. How’s them apples?

      • Curtis Conway

        I got a news flash for you. The US Marine Corps is also a part of the Fleet and the F-35B, even with its limitations, has already reached IOC, and the Green Knights will deploy to Japan in 2017.

  • John B. Morgen

    The USS America (LHA-6) is only be stop gap until a larger carrier arrives. However, the Navy needs to rethink about building smaller aircraft carriers, or carriers that are comparable to the British and French carriers. The Navy has get out from its comfort zone, and return to of having smaller carrier assets. Because smaller carriers from past naval history were proven to be valuable assets during naval operations, yet new types of aircraft are going to be require; especially, the AEW aircraft.. The Navy is going to need an AEW variant of the V-22 Osprey, and such an aircraft is quite possible; for example, the British Westland Sea King ASAC Mk7 Or better yet, the Navy should purchase some British Sea King ASAC Mk7s, and test them on the USS America or not before buying them in large numbers. The British aircraft have already been deployed on the British Invincible (R 05) class aircraft carriers, which are comparable to the USS America (LHA-6).

    • USNVO

      Alternatively, the SECDEF could smack down the combatant commanders and tell them to come up with strategies using the available assets. CENTCOM is an especially bad offender of asking for everything except the kitchen sink just so they can sit around just in case. Decide on a level of resources that is both affordable and preserves your surge capacity, prioritize, and then make the Commanders live within the construct.

      • John B. Morgen

        If that’s the case then we better keep the AV-8Bs flying, or come up with an upgraded Harrier by reusing aircraft parts. That’s just one example….

    • Secundius

      @ John B. Morgen.

      Sea King’s are no longer used in the AEW&C role, the AW101 (HM.2) Merlin’s are used now. But the older Airborne Radar is scheduled to be replaced by the AESA system, similar to the one’s proposed for the EV-22B/C Osprey’s…

      • John B. Morgen

        Thank you for the update, I will make a note of it.

  • Secundius

    Put a 12(deg) Ski-Jump on the Flight Deck and you can reduce Take-Off Runs to 450-feet, instead of the 800+ feet require now. And still operated Other Aircraft’s at the Same Time…

  • Sailboater

    The navy needs to become flexible now we know carriers can not be everywhere. So ten carriers is not enough. Whatever happen to the Surface Action Group concept?

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