The Navy has run its 10 aircraft carriers hard since USS Enterprise (CVN-65) decommissioned in December 2012 and is now paying the resulting maintenance bill, with half the fleet tied up in repairs and the other five trying to keep up with combatant commanders’ needs.
During a House Armed Services Committee hearing on aircraft carrier presence, Program Executive Officer for Aircraft Carriers Rear Adm. Tom Moore said that five of the 10 carriers are unavailable for tasking due to maintenance work.
USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN-72) is in the middle of its Refueling and Complex Overhaul (RCOH) at Newport News Shipbuilding, and USS George Washington (CVN-73) is making a slow, engagement-filled voyage from its previous homeport in Japan to Newport News Shipbuilding, where it will await the start of its RCOH in 2017. USS Nimitz (CVN-68) is in a 14-month availability at Puget Sound Naval Shipyard in Washington, USS George H.W. Bush (CVN-77) is in an eight-month availability at Norfolk Naval Shipyard, and USS Carl Vinson (CVN-70) is in a six-month availability in San Diego, Moore said.
“I think what we’ve seen here recently, as a result of being down to 10 carriers and having to run carriers at a pace faster than they were designed for – for instance, Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN-69) just finished a 24-month availability, which was only scheduled for 14 months; she had deployed four times since 2008 with only one maintenance availability in there. So much faster than we had designed, consumed the service life of that ship much faster, so it’s really no surprise that you saw some of the impacts there.
“We’ve got to get our arms around that, I’ve certainly spend a lot of time looking at Eisenhower to figure out where we can do better going into maintenance periods,” Moore said.
Moore said during the hearing that the operational tempo for the carrier fleet has gotten higher since Enterprise decommissioned but that not all carriers have been used equally in the last three years. Nimitz and Eisenhower in particular have been pushed hard, and it shows in the maintenance periods. Ike’s 14-month maintenance availability had to be extended by nearly a year, forcing USS Harry S Truman (CVN-75) to take on an unscheduled deployment this fall with only a reduced maintenance availability after its last deployment – which may hurt Truman down the road.
And Nimitz will spend the better part of three years in maintenance to make up for work that has been skipped previously to allow for greater overseas presence, Moore said.
“We really run her at a higher optempo than some of the other carriers, so of the availabilities we have going on right now I would tell you that the Nimitz one up in Bremerton is the most challenging in terms of the size of the work package,” he said. To compensate, rather than send Nimitz straight into its regularly scheduled docked availability, the Navy inserted a 14-month “extended maintenance availability” to be followed by the docked period, “so she’s going to have, in the span of three years, a significant amount of maintenance done on her to try to catch back up.”
Even if Nimitz and Eisenhower took the worst of the combined carrier shortfall and uptick in combatant commander demand since 2012, the other ships have been pushed hard too.
“In the last three years in order to meet the demand signal from the COCOMS … we’ve run the carriers harder than we’ve typically done and harder than they were designed,” Moore said.
“We’ve had, since 2012, seven aircraft carriers that have gone more than 300 days deployed time between maintenance availabilities – not all consecutive (deployed days), but that’s an awful lot of run time, and that’s a challenge we’re going to have to continue to face here until we get” USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN-78), which will commission next year but not be operationally available until 2021 due to first-in-class test and evaluation.
The Navy is transitioning into its new deployment schedule, the Optimized Fleet Response Plan, which would limit deployments to seven months and ensure proper maintenance and training time for the ships, crews and air wings. However, given that only five carriers are currently available for tasking, HASC seapower ranking member Rep. Joe Courtney (D-Conn.) asked if the Navy could realistically stick to its plan.
“You’re going to be showered in demands, and it’s going to take discipline to sort of maintain this for the next three years or so,” he said to the four Navy officials testifying at the hearing.
“Do you all feel confident we’re going to be able to get through this patch and accomplish the goals of a fleet that is ready to meet all the requirements that are out there?”
Vice Adm. John Aquilino, vice chief of naval operations for operations, plans and strategy, responded that “we’re confident that our model and our plans will get us where we need to be, absent the fact that the world gets a vote.”
Already the Navy has chosen to accept gaps in carrier presence around the world to deal with the current condition of the carrier fleet. There is no aircraft carrier in the Middle East presently, though Truman will deploy later this year to U.S. 5th Fleet. Aquilino said the Navy would risk having carrier gaps in the Middle East or Pacific, where there had previously been at least one or two carrier strike groups in each theater at all times, until 2021.
Navy acquisition chief Sean Stackley added that “we’re operating a small number of carriers, low-density, high-demand, and if the temperature rises in a risk area around the world, then senior leadership is going to have to decide is it more important to do that maintenance, which is a long-term investment, or do we have to respond today to the immediate crisis.”
He said that returning to an 11-carrier force in 2021 will help create a more sustainable schedule for maintenance and deployments, but being down a carrier now means driving the other 10 ships harder, which puts more ships in maintenance than planned, which forces even fewer ships to work even harder to meet global requirements.
Moore told USNI News after the hearing that he learned a lot of lessons from the Eisenhower maintenance availability, after back-to-back deployments without maintenance and four total deployments in seven years. He will apply those lessons to Truman when that carrier returns from what is essentially a back-to-back deployment, with just a couple months maintenance for only the most necessary work rather than a full planned maintenance availability.
Moore noted than Truman might not come back in as bad a condition as Eisenhower did after the double deployment, given than Truman is only 18 years old compared to the 38-year-old Ike.
“So a little bit younger ship, so it has the ability to kind of absorb a little bit more than say Eisenhower did,” Moore said.
Still, “we made a conscious decision to shorten the maintenance period, we don’t like to do that but we’ll keep a very close eye on that when she comes back for her next availability.”