This post has been updated to include that the crew of USS Nimitz (CVN-68) had been in COVID-19 isolation since April 1, 2020.
The first official trip for Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin will include a visit with sailors and Marines with the Nimitz Carrier Strike Group later this week, Pentagon officials announced on Monday.
As part of the trip, Austin and Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday will meet the strike group on Thursday as elements return to California after wrapping up an eight-and-a-half-month deployment to the Western Pacific and the Middle East, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said during a press briefing.
Ordering USS Nimitz (CVN-68), its escorts and Carrier Air Wing 17 home from the Middle East was one of Austin’s first acts as SECDEF. While the strike group was certified and deployed on June 8, the sailors and Marines had been in isolation as a result of COVID-19 mitigation measures since late April, when the Bremerton, Wash.,-based carrier was preparing to depart for San Diego, Calif., to gather the rest of its air wing – meaning the crew had been away from home for more than 10 months. The crew of the carrier had been in quarantine since April 1.
The duration of Nimitz’s time away was part of the reason for Austin’s trip to talk to sailors firsthand, Kirby said.
“The secretary is certainly mindful of the demand that’s placing on the service itself and of course on the sailors, and that’s one of the reasons he wanted to see Nimitz,” he said.
The carrier completed a dry-dock maintenance period just ahead of the March declaration of a global COVID-19 pandemic. The members of the strike group were the first group of deploying sailors to go through the Navy’s restriction of movement (ROM) protocols.
“The crew knew from the beginning how important it was to stay healthy, because for a while there was Nimitz, and that was it,” Capt. Max Clark, the commanding officer of Nimitz, told The Kitsap Sun in a Feb. 19 interview.
“For a while there, we said, ‘if it’s not Nimitz, it’s nobody.'”
The end of Nimitz’s deployment comes as the Navy grapples with meeting the combatant commander demand of carrier strike groups – particularly in the Middle East. Commitments to U.S. Central Command, starting in May of 2019, have resulted in a near-constant presence in the Middle East.
Aside from a brief mission off the coast of Somalia and drilling with the Indian Navy, Nimitz and its escorts operated in a tight patch of ocean between the Gulf of Oman and the North Arabian Sea.
As reported by USNI News in November, since 2012, with both the Theodore Roosevelt and Eisenhower CSGs now conducting their second of back-to-back deployments to help meet demand.
When asked, Kirby said carrier deployments are part of an overall evaluation of Pentagon operations being conducted ahead of the Biden administration releasing its first defense budget.
“Through the budget season and even beyond, he’s been in discussion with the chairman and the chiefs about the resiliency of the force, the kinds of capabilities we’ll be putting in the field and the degree to which the requirement process is being handled in the most effective and efficient way,” Kirby said, referring to Austin.
“There’s always tensions between what’s needed out there and what’s available, and he’s mindful of that, having been a combatant commander himself and vice chief of the Army. He’s been on both sides of that equation.”
Nimitz was nearing the U.S. West Coast, according to Monday’s USNI News Fleet and Marine Tracker.