This post has been updated to show Lincoln was deployed for 295 days, counting the day it returned — Jan. 20, 2020.
SAN DIEGO — The 3,000 sailors aboard aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN-72) arrived at their new California homeport this morning having spent more time deployed than any carrier since the mid-1970s – 295 days.
Lincoln and its embarked Carrier Air Wing 7 deployed on April 1 from Norfolk, Va., for a planned seven-month deployment. However, shortly after leaving the East Coast, Lincoln was sent to the Middle East as tensions with Iran rose. While operating in a tight box in the North Arabian Sea and the Gulf of Oman, Lincoln served to deter Iran at the same time the strike group was also supporting ongoing combat operations in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria. All told, Lincoln spent more than 222 days operating in the U.S. Central Command region.
The 295-day deployment took the record for post-Cold War carrier cruise from Lincoln‘s 2002 to 2003 deployment during the invasion of Iraq. But there were good reasons for the extended deployment, the strike group commander told USNI News during an interview this week.
“Our mission there was to be a deterrent force. We were the response option,” Rear Adm. Mike Boyle, commander of Carrier Strike Group 12, said in a phone interview from the carrier. “I truly believe, and it’s not a talking point – is our presence in the Middle East prevented us from going to war with Iran. There’s no doubt in my mind.”
The deterrence mission paired with other missions in U.S. Central Command.
“We supported troops on the ground in Afghanistan. So if we can prevent one soldier, one coalition soldier, from getting killed, we’d stay out there forever,” he said. “We supported the Marines on the ground as they did their withdrawal up there in Syria.”
With open, honest communication, sailors “get it and understand why they are there,” Boyle said, “but they also want to know when they are going home.”
That’s not always easy. Driving the extensions was the fact that the Navy had few good options to make carriers more available to support missions in the Middle East after USS Harry S. Truman (CVN-75) suffered a maintenance delay and couldn’t relieve Lincoln on time.
This has been “probably one of the more challenging deployments that I have done … and not because it was long, but because the end date was uncertain,” Boyle told USNI News. “If you can count down, you can pretty much do anything. But when you don’t know when to start the count, it’s really, really challenging.”
Boyle said Lincoln’s experience highlights a new set of challenges for the carrier force, such as “setting expectations. As we become a more dynamically maneuverable force … the plans become a little bit more uncertain.”
The carrier deployment of the last 20 years – often marked by a quick haul over to the Persian Gulf only to sit there for five months – is no longer likely.
“What we need to do is to set the expectations for them that we’re just not going to have the luxury of knowing where we’re going to go anymore,” Boyle said. “We can plan for great power competition and near-peer competitors like China and Russia, but the world gets a vote.”
The changes in Iran just over the last 10 months are an example of how events can pop up to change what the carrier forces are asked to do.
“We have to set the expectations for our sailors that we’re not going to be able to give them a predictable schedule,” he said. “An around-the-world cruise may mean that you’re going to stop in all kinds of exotic Pacific ports or it may mean you’re going to spend a bunch of time in the North Arabian Sea where there’s not a lot of exotic ports.”
Extensions and Anxieties
Boyle said he tried to emphasize to sailors to focus less on the negative when communicating with their families to help quell their own anxieties.
“There’s going to be anxiety, but I think the way to tamp down the anxiety is to be as transparent as we possibly can be with our sailors,” he said. “When we explained to them the mission that we were doing, the Navy’s role, the benefit of the Navy in peacetime to prevent us from getting into war in the first place, they all understand. … The more transparent we are – that we can only control the things we can control – then they are a little bit more mentally prepared for it.”
That included Boyle speaking to the crew on Lincoln’s 1MC daily about “what the plan is, what’s going on, what we know, and that what we know may change,” he said. “What we found out is it did change – and every time it changed, we got on the 1MC and let them know as soon as possible, to be the first to tell them what was going on before the rumors spread, and that really tamps down anxiety.”
The units’ ombudsmen as well as leadership, including Lincoln’s commanding officer, helped relay those messages home.
“We had the ship through the majority of cruise in the position of safety, out of the reach of any threat,” Boyle noted. “That makes us a stronger deterrent.”
Securing the Gulf
But Lincoln wasn’t standing duty alone. In the Persian Gulf, the carrier and its cruiser and destroyers had the important mission of ensuring the free flow of commerce through the Strait of Hormuz, where 25 percent of the world’s oil flows.
“Iran has the capability to shut off that strait, which would, although the U.S. does not rely heavily on oil from the Middle East, create a disruption of that oil to Asia, would severely disrupt the world economy,” Boyle said.
The strike group’s ships, particularly its destroyers, were working in a framework known as the International Maritime Security Construct.
The coalition task force supports freedom of navigation and protects the Strait of Hormuz with high-end destroyers placed at each end of waterway, Boyle said. Patrol craft and other warships escort merchant vessels in and out of the Persian Gulf. Lincoln‘s destroyers “really were center stage,” he said. Norfolk-based guided-missile destroyers USS Bainbridge (DDG-96), USS Nitze (DDG-94) and USS Mason (DDG-87) that were assigned to Lincoln were key to the mission. Meanwhile, guided-missile cruiser USS Leyte Gulf (CG-55) provided defense and support to Lincoln in the North Arabian Sea.
The CRUDES crews, he noted, “spent most of their time a lot closer to the threat, so probably a little bit in more harm’s way than the aircraft carrier… ensuring the free flow of commerce through the Strait of Hormuz,” he said.
The ships, which trained with Lincoln through the predeployment certifications, left the Lincoln CSG in October and returned home to Norfolk. Meanwhile, CRUDES units assigned to the Truman CSG relieved them to join Lincoln in the region. Leyte Gulf returned home to Norfolk earlier this month.
“The fact that we had not planned on an extended deterrence mission against Iran created a scheduling dilemma,” Boyle noted.
After leaving U.S. 5th Fleet, Lincoln arrived in U.S. 7th Fleet and in mid-December was joined by the Japan-based guided-missile cruiser USS Chancellorsville (CG-62) and littoral combat ship USS Gabrielle Giffords (LCS-10) for the escort through the South China Sea during the eastward transit through the region, Boyle said.
Before pushing to California, Lincoln‘s crew got a break, reveling in “crossing the line” ceremonies as the carrier transited the International Dateline and again in Hawaii, where the carrier had a five-day liberty break after pulling into Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam on Jan. 8. The carrier took on 650 family members for the “Tiger Cruise” back to San Diego and sent off its fixed-wing squadrons. “It was just a chance for people to decompress a little bit from the long deployment,” he said.
Keeping Sharp on Long Deployments
Throughout the long stretch in the Persian Gulf, Boyle said a focus was ensuring the CSG’s capabilities remained sharp even though the focus was on deterrence against Iran.
“What some people don’t understand is, that means our capability sits on the shelf,” he said. Crews know full well that pulling long duty in a region can be tedious. “We have to find ways to maintain our fighting edge,” he said, “and we look for training opportunities even though we are deployed and supporting real world operations.”
For all the uncertainty and changes to the schedule, the Lincoln CSG was well positioned to react and respond to contingency missions including Iran, Boyle said.
“The training we do for the high-end fight… with a near-peer competitor has us fully prepared for a threat like Iran and in the area of the Strait of Hormuz. It’s nothing that we’re not able to handle,” he said.
Still, Boyle noted, situations such as a face-off against a threat like Iran get complicated because the U.S. isn’t at war.
“Defending a force against a threat at peacetime is much more challenging than defending the force against a threat at wartime,” he said.
“You have to wait until somebody starts a fight. So you’re right on the edge all the time.”