Last month the aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis (CVN-74) returned home from a seven-month deployment to the Western Pacific – the first time in several years a carrier from the continental United States had deployed specifically to that region rather than simply passing through on the way to and from the Middle East.
In addition to highlighting a shift in focus to the Pacific, the deployment featured an opportunity to practice high-end warfighting skills with another U.S. carrier strike group, several exercises with allies and partners in the region, and persistent but professional contact with Chinese ships sent to shadow Stennis.
Stennis Commanding Officer Capt. Greg Huffman detailed the highlights of the deployment in an interview with USNI News.
With the Stennis Carrier Strike Group spending its entire seven-month deployment in the Pacific, plus the Japan-based Ronald Reagan Carrier Strike Group returning to sea after a maintenance period, the Navy found itself with a rare opportunity to let two aircraft carriers operate together at sea. Due to maintenance and deployment cycles, two-carrier operations generally only happen during scripted events like past Valiant Shield exercises, which Huffman told USNI News he has participated in before. But putting the Stennis and Reagan CSGs together at sea let leadership figure out command and control issues on their own rather than following a designed exercise plan.
“One of the challenges when you bring two carrier strike groups together is, we’re used to operating as independent entities, and so the coordination piece was really where things got done in terms of working out how we’re going to work together – basic things in terms of just radio frequencies and altitudes, and how we’re going to deconflict things. Just interoperability,” Huffman said, noting that Valiant Shield has sometimes brought together three carriers but in a more formal setting with command and control already decided by exercise planners.
During the dual-carrier operations in the Philippine Sea, the two strike groups – two carriers, three cruisers, six destroyers and two carrier air wings – came together for photos before beginning long-range strike rehearsals and air-to-air combat. Carrier Air Wings 5 and 9 took turns simulating an adversary force, and eventually they stressed their command and control structure by splitting up the air wings and creating a mixed-CVW blue force and red force, Huffman said.
A key benefit of bringing the ships and planes together in this manner was understanding the range of ways they could command and control the force and talking through what setup would work best for their situation, he said.
“There is doctrine on different ways to do it, and it really comes down to the strike group staffs working out who was going to take what roles, whether it was going to be two sort of independent but coordinated elements, or one managing the entire group – so there is different layers of doctrine that can be applied, and we opted for sort of two independent but coordinated elements,” Huffman said.
“So rather than having one person in charge of air defense for both strike groups, we had two separate air defense commanders but they would work together. And that actually makes for a lot more coordinated challenges, so those were the types of things they worked out. But I think, again, good lessons learned, a good chance to put theory and doctrine into practice.”
Huffman said the operation was a great chance to validate that “the theory works when you get a chance to put it into practice, it just takes some practice.” Based on the assessment that the carriers should operate independently but coordinated, Huffman added that “I think realistically if we were to be operating two carriers we wouldn’t put them right next to each other, but getting the chance to do that was kind of cool –getting to see another aircraft carrier that close was kind of a neat thing for me. Plus I’m good friends with the [commanding officer] of the Reagan, so that made it fun as well.”
A Chinese Shadow
Huffman said he deployed to the Pacific about a decade ago, and the clear difference between then and now was China and its’ People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), which shadowed the Stennis CSG nearly constantly.
“When we first arrived in the theater and we were operating in the Philippine Sea was when we first had interaction with the Chinese navy, with one of their AGI [signals intelligence] vessels. They just came and they basically stayed about three to five, maybe up to 10 miles away from us, but never too close and never too far away, kind of doing in some respects what the old Cold War AGI mission used to be with the Soviet Union where they would just shadow us,” Huffman said.
“So we had interactions with them all the way out in the Philippine Sea, and then they continued on into the South China Sea. So we always kind of had one or two vessels with us, but they were always professional in everything they did.”
Huffman said Navy and PLAN forces communicated with one another to maintain a safe operating environment for all ships and aircraft – unlike recent U.S. encounters with Russia and Iran, who have flown aircraft and driven ships dangerously close to U.S. planes and ships without communicating their intentions or their navigational course.
“We communicated quite frequently with (Chinese crews) on the bridge-to-bridge radio just in terms of letting them know what our intentions were when we were turning – maneuvering the aircraft carrier is all about getting into the wind to launch and recover airplanes, so we can be sometimes unpredictable, so we would just let them know as we were turning basically what course we were coming to so that they could prepare themselves and wouldn’t be caught in a somewhat unsafe situation just from a navigation standpoint by being in the wrong place and then having to react really quickly,” he said.
“So it was a good give and take, a good professional interaction, and they were always professional on the radio. Every interaction was very positive with them.”
Huffman said the strike group had no formal passing exercises or other planned encounters with PLAN vessels, but when operating in the South China Sea or Philippine Sea there was almost always a PLAN frigate or AGI within a few miles of Stennis.
Presence in WESTPAC
In some ways, the WESTPAC deployment was the same as any recent carrier deployment to the Middle East, Huffman said. The flattop launched and recovered planes for the same 12-hour window, with the air wing flying about the same number of sorties as any recent deployment to the Middle East. The strike group and air wing crews were always on high alert for whatever unexpected situation may have arisen. But, of course, the planes weren’t dropping bombs on an enemy.
“I think the only difference was we weren’t doing any of the kinetic type things that those folks were doing against ISIS, so that was probably the only real difference,” he said.
“But the actual numbers, the flight hours, the sorties, the days steaming are all comparable between the two (deployments). It’s really just the end-game that was a little bit different.”
Stennis CSG focused on a freedom of navigation mission, showing an American presence and spreading the message that international waters would be open for all. Huffman said that mission was somewhat less tangible than dropping bombs on ISIS targets in the Middle East and therefore it could have been a challenge to keep sailors focused and motivated while providing presence instead of warfighting. But he praised his crew for remaining professional and ready for whatever they were tasked to do.
“I really understood what we were doing and why it was important, to basically keep that U.S. presence there and let our allies and partners know … we were there for them and we supported keeping the global commons free and clear. So that to me was a big privilege,” Huffman said.
About 580 distinguished visitors came to visit the strike group during the deployment, so that high-level attention – plus the opportunity to work with international partners – kept morale up, he said. The crew conducted formal passing exercises (PASSEX) with French and Australian ships, and they participated in bilateral and multilateral exercises with Japanese, Korean, Indian and Philippine naval forces.
Huffman said they spent the most time working with Japanese forces, who he called “extremely professional mariners and just great great people to work with.” He said he also made friends with Indian naval officers during Exercise Malabar who he then got to see again at the end of the deployment during the Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) 2016 exercise in Hawaii.
New Computer Network
In another first, Stennis was the first aircraft carrier to deploy with the new Consolidated Afloat Network and Enterprise Services (CANES) system, which was installed during a 14-month maintenance and modernization availability in 2014 and 2015.
Asked how the deployment went in a CANES operating environment, Huffman laughed and said it was “a little bit of an apples and oranges in some respects” because his last carrier deployment was on USS Enterprise (CVN-65) at the end of that ship’s 51-year service life.
“I don’t want to say we had crashes all the time with servers on Enterprise, but certainly way more frequently back then than we did on CANES. In fact, I can’t even think of an instance where we lost everything for an extended period of time out here,” he said of Stennis.
“We did not have very new systems on (Enterprise), so the comparison between my last deployment and this one was night and day in terms of network stability and operability and capability. Just much more robust performance that I saw this time around. And I attribute a lot of that to the sailors that worked very very hard during the workups, compiling lessons learned and best practices, working with the designers back at [Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command], working through little bugs that would pop up, and keeping the system up and operational.”
Looking back on the seven months, Huffman said it was overall “one of the most successful deployments I’ve ever been on.”
The ship is now back in its Bremerton, Wash., homeport, where it is serving as a “surge” asset if called upon. The ship has not yet entered the Navy’s new Optimized Fleet Response Plan cycle yet but is essentially following that model – spending several months sustaining readiness upon returning home from deployment ahead of entering the shipyard for an extended maintenance period. Huffman said the ship would do short at-sea periods this fall as needed for crew training and other requirements and would begin maintenance early next year.