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U.S. Fleet Forces: New Deployment Plan Designed to Create Sustainable Naval Force

Two F/A-18 Super Hornets and two Royal Malaysian Air Force Mig 29 Fulcrums fly in formation above the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson (CVN 70) in the South China Sea in May 2015. US Navy photo.

Two F/A-18 Super Hornets and two Royal Malaysian Air Force Mig 29 Fulcrums fly in formation above the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson (CVN 70) in the South China Sea in May 2015. US Navy photo.

This post has been updated to clarify the name and role of the Navy’s warfighting development centers.

NAVAL STATION NORFOLK, VA. – Two years after the Navy unveiled a new fleet deployment and maintenance model, fleet commanders have some successes to tout: three carrier strike groups are operating under the new model, and a working group is capturing lessons learned and proposing ideas to improve fleet operations.

In its short lifespan, though, the 36-month Optimized Fleet Response Plan (OFRP) has faced some critics. Even as U.S. Fleet Forces and U.S. Pacific Fleet were getting the gears turning, it was clear that other communities in the Navy and the lawmakers that oversee and fund operations had concerns about the plan, its viability and its impact to people, platforms and presence.

U.S. Fleet Forces Command commander Adm. Phil Davidson sat down with USNI News last week to explain the ins and outs of OFRP, which he said has generated some confusion because, while conceptually OFRP is as simple as its predecessor, the execution involves more moving pieces.

On the surface, it is the same four-part deployment cycle as the old Fleet Response Plan: maintain, train, deploy and sustain readiness at home, he said. And yet to optimize that cycle, the Navy must align numerous “subordinate processes” and balance the goals of various naval communities, requiring a cross-community collaboration– bringing in the aviation, maintenance, acquisition and training communities– that wasn’t needed before.

“We’re trying to get four things out of OFRP: we’ve got to have a schedule that’s capable of rotating the force, meaning sending it on deployment; surging that force in case we have to go to war; maintain and modernize that force so that we can get it to the end of its service life; and then if you had to go to war or if you had some other catastrophe, be able to reset the whole thing in stride, which the previous iteration didn’t have that capability,” Davidson said in a Jan. 13 interview.
“And oh by the way, you’ve got to make all four things happen with the resources that were available.”

Getting the new cycle started – and getting buy-in from the rest of the Navy – hasn’t been easy, but Davidson said the fleet will ultimately be better prepared to meet combatant commander needs without straining the ships, planes and sailors.

Maximum Employability

USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71) leads ships from Carrier Strike Group (CSG) 12 during a maneuvering exercise. US Navy Photo

USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71) leads ships from Carrier Strike Group (CSG) 12 during a maneuvering exercise. US Navy Photo

OFRP revolves around the idea of a single seven-month deployment in a 36-month cycle, with carrier deployments occurring heel-to-toe. The fleet warned last year that “carrier gaps” in the Middle East or in the Pacific are still possible, since in recent years those gaps were avoided by extending deployment lengths. Under OFRP the Navy will operate under a supply-based model rather than a demand-based model – giving the combatant commanders only as much presence as the service can generate without over-taxing the fleet – though Davidson vowed that in a crisis “all these forces are going to go where the nation’s leadership needs them to go, when they need them to go.”

So what does it look like to have a force that is both ready to respond at a moment’s notice but also not over-deployed?

Davidson said properly using the final phase of OFRP, the sustainment phase, would be key.

OFRP allows for six months of shipyard maintenance, eight months of basic and integrated training, and then 22 months for a seven-month deployment followed by sustainment, in which the CSG will be at its homeport but maintaining a deployed-force level of proficiency.

Davidson said allowing the CSG to sit around and lose skills during sustainment would be a waste, but sending the group off to a second deployment should be a wartime-only last resort. The answer to how to best use the sustainment period lies somewhere in the middle.

One idea Davidson has for the fleet is using the carrier strike group in its sustainment phase as the “orange force,” or the enemy, to help train the next-to-deploy CSG during integrated training. This would benefit both strike groups, Davidson said, as the deploying group would get to train against a top-notch opponent and the group in sustainment would get out to sea and ensure the ships’ crews and the air wing remain certified.

Russ Williams, who represents U.S. Fleet Forces and U.S. Pacific Fleet on the OFRP Cross Functional Team, told USNI News in a Jan. 11 interview that sailors would of course maintain their ships and aircraft during the sustainment phase, but they would also have the opportunity to take classes in waterfront schools or participate in virtual training. The Navy is also looking into bringing in the warfighting development centers to teach sailors about specific warfare areas that are not covered in depth during pre-deployment training: cyber and information warfare, anti-submarine warfare, and other areas where specialized instructors could teach crews skills not covered in the deployment-focused basic and integrated training phase.

If a natural disaster happened close to home, the CSG in sustainment would likely be the one to respond. The sustainment force could even participate in exercises in U.S. Southern Command if Defense Department leadership decided it was a worthy investment. Ultimately the way the force is used is up to the combatant commanders, the Joint Staff and the secretary of defense, Davidson said – but he said his discussions with leadership have stressed that nuclear-powered aircraft carriers only have so much fuel and cannot be overused if they are to reach their anticipated service life.

Davidson said his conversations with leadership have also stressed the idea of proper resourcing. The Navy has always funded maintenance, training, deployment and some amount of sustainment in its regular budget, whereas the Army and Air Force generally require additional funding to deploy abroad. Davidson said, though, that the fleet’s annual budget will only cover training at home during the sustainment phase, and anything else – a full-length wartime deployment, or even a short deployment to U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) – would require additional funding.

Some Navy leaders, including Commander of Naval Air Forces Vice Adm. Mike Shoemaker, expressed concern last year that the Navy would struggle to fund the sustainment phase.

“As I’ve looked back on the last few years … I looked back on the sustainment periods for our most recent deployers, and the longest we’ve sustained any air wing and carrier, carrier air wing team, was [USS George H.W. Bush] and [Carrier Air Group] 8 from when they returned in December until April, so it was about five months of sustainment,” he said in a speech.

Davidson said that even though the sustainment phase is longer under OFRP, he would still address his funding needs with Navy leadership and Congress in familiar terms: flying hours, steaming hours, personnel, spare parts and other budget lines. There won’t be an OFRP funding line in the budget, he said, so ultimately it will be up to Congress to provide the full amount of operations and maintenance funding the fleets request to support the sustainment phase.

Thanks to a nine-year Master OFRP Production Plan (MOPP), Davidson said the fleet commanders should have a good idea of what each carrier strike group will need each fiscal year and be able to request the appropriate dollars in the budget.

Both Davidson and Williams noted that the MOPP would change over time, being “recalibrated” to account for changing threats, changing funding levels and other real-world factors.

“But the overall thrust of it is, you gotta have a plan. If you have no plan, it’s chaos,” Davidson said.
“So you have to start with that kind of scheme in place and then depart from there.”

Cross-Community Collaboration

USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN-69) undergoing a scheduled docking planned incremental availability at Norfolk Naval Shipyard on Aug. 26, 2014. US Navy Photo

USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN-69) undergoing a scheduled docking planned incremental availability at Norfolk Naval Shipyard on Aug. 26, 2014. US Navy Photo

As stakeholders continue to adjust the MOPP, no single community in the Navy will be able to focus on optimizing their own processes, but rather they will all have to work together to optimize force generation at a macro level, Davidson said.

For example, the ideal situation for the maintenance community would be to have a steady flow of ships come through public and private yards for maintenance and modernization. However, under OFRP all the ships of a CSG must be through maintenance and basic training and ready to start integrated training by an exact date. These opposing needs are being worked out in the OFRP Cross-Functional Team and have already led to some gives and takes: the ships may need to split up and go to different yards to avoid overloading a single shipyard. A ship that requires a longer maintenance period may need to cut into basic training and compress that schedule, while still being ready to start integrated training on the I-date.

Davidson said this shows the flexibility of OFRP, and it also highlights the importance of cross-community collaboration: if the maintainers know in advance that a ship needs major repair work during its availability, or will be stuck in dock longer to accommodate a system modernization effort, they can tell the training community well in advance and work together to find a mutually acceptable solution.

Williams said this has not always been the case. When the Navy set out to upgrade its ships to include the sensors and weapons included in the Naval Integrated Fire Control-Counter Air construct, “had we been able to look out to those nine years [in the MOPP], I believe we could have done a better job of ensuring we had all the pieces and parts to that before we got started,” he said. The program executive offices, maintainers, trainers and others were all involved in the effort to field NIFC-CA components but didn’t effectively synchronize their schedules.

This collaboration also includes the Navy Personnel Command, which will have to ensure that all jobs in the carrier strike group are filled prior to the start of integrated training. Previously, ships have been stuck trying to fill spots in the weeks leading up to a deployment. Now, by requiring that all personnel go through integrated training together, units will be more cohesive and proficiency levels will be more consistent when a ship deploys.

Davidson said he understood that other commanders would have concerns about operating under OFRP and not being able to focus on optimizing their own needs.

“The concerns, I don’t think, are insurmountable,” he said. After much discussion, Davidson said he believes “they’re working their way … through their transitions to get organized to go forward on this.”

Optimizing OFRP

Commander, U.S. Fleet Forces Command Adm. Phillip Davidson delivers remarks during the 28th annual Surface Navy Association (SNA) National Symposium on Jan. 14, 2016. US Navy Photo

Commander, U.S. Fleet Forces Command Adm. Phillip Davidson delivers remarks during the 28th annual Surface Navy Association (SNA) National Symposium on Jan. 14, 2016. US Navy Photo

When the first carrier strike group finishes its first OFRP cycle, it will not have maximized its “employability” in the cycle. Though it will deploy as planned, some of its sustainment phase is likely to be used for shipyard maintenance, Williams said. Many ships have been forced to skip over needed maintenance to keep up with deployment demands, and the public shipyards that maintain aircraft carriers were hit with hiring freezes and lower manning levels over the past several years. The yards are now building up their manpower and capacity, and Williams said the Navy expects to dig out of its maintenance backlog by about 2019.

By 2021, then, Williams said the strike groups should be at maximum employability – with each carrier strike group ready to serve fleet or combatant commander needs every day of the 22-month deployment and sustainment period.

Achieving that will require some process improvements, he noted. Potential barriers include modernization schedules, maintenance inefficiencies, spare parts and ordnance shortfalls, manning issues and training inefficiencies. With today’s processes, Williams estimates the Navy can only produce about 2.8 carrier strike groups that are ready for tasking – with one aircraft carrier in a Refueling and Complex Overhaul (RCOH) at any given time, two in deep maintenance, one and a half in training and the rest caught up in inefficiencies.

If the Navy can improve its processes, though, Williams said the service could reach 5.2 carrier strike groups ready for tasking by about 2020 and as much as 5.7 CSGs once the new carrier Gerald R. Ford (CVN-78) enters the fleet.

To address the barriers to maximum employability, Williams said the OFRP Cross Functional Team has been looking at policies that would make manning and training more efficient, studying where weak points are in the logistics infrastructure, and taking possible solutions to the Fleet Commanders Readiness Council where the two commanders – Davidson and U.S. Pacific Fleet Commander Adm. Scott Swift – can decide which to implement.

Davidson acknowledged that a lot of work has already gone into getting OFRP off the ground and that it will take even more effort to bring the remaining seven strike groups into the cycle – and to keep improving the cycle as leadership monitors for lessons learned. However, Davidson said the hard work would pay off in a couple years.

“One, you’ll have a ready force that has excellent retention and recruitment,” he said when asked how OFRP would shape the future fleet. “You’ll have nuclear shipyards that are capable of making the turn on maintenance with well planned availabilities and getting them out of their availabilities on time. And you will have a force that is much better equipped for a high-end conflict.”