Sailors and Marines serving on aircraft carriers can expect long deployments for the next few years because of ongoing crises in the Middle East and a shrinking number of carriers available for duty.
The venerable USS Enterprise, commissioned in 1961 as the Navy's first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, was deactivated last month, and the USS Abraham Lincoln is undergoing a four-year overhaul to increase its life span.
That has reduced the U.S. Fleet of carriers from 11 to nine, as the Navy struggles to maintain a two-carrier presence in the Middle East as required by the Obama administration since 2010.
"We need 11 carriers to do the job. That's been pretty clearly written, and that's underwritten in our defense strategic guidance," Adm. Jonathan Greenert, chief of naval operations, said recently.
Carrier deployments have lengthened gradually over the past decade, from six months to as long as nine months.
Adm. Greenert said it will be at least two or three years before carriers return to six-month deployments, as the Navy strains to keep operational its flattop fleet and the battle groups of combat and supply vessels that support their missions.
For example, the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower had been scheduled to return to the U.S. From a nine-month deployment to the Middle East early this year and be relieved by the USS Nimitz.
But in late November, the Navy announced that repairs on the Nimitz would not be completed until this summer. So the Eisenhower returned in late December and will deploy again to the Middle East in February — a two-month turnaround.
Until then, the USS John C. Stennis remains the only aircraft carrier in the Middle East. When the Stennis completes its eight-month deployment, it will be relieved by the USS Harry S. Truman, which also will carry out an eight-month deployment.
Adm. Greenert said the frequency of deployments, known as "operational tempo," is higher than he expected 14 months ago when he became chief of naval operations, and the two-carrier presence in the Middle East needs to be reconsidered.
"We need to reconcile how to continue to support that," he said. "Right now, we are committed to providing two carrier strike groups in the Arabian Gulf through March. We've been doing this since 2010, and we're committed to that, as I said, through this March. We need to take a look at that, and we will be, with the Joint Staff and the services to see if we need to continue this."
Operational tempo requires that as one carrier is deployed in the region, another is returning, a third is preparing to deploy and a fourth is undergoing maintenance for deployments. The two-carrier commitment requires the operational tempo to be multiplied by two, encompassing nearly the entire flattop fleet.
However, the end of the two-carrier presence in the Middle East is not likely anytime soon. The carriers are deployed there to deter Iran from acting on its threats to close the Strait of Hormuz, a narrow waterway through which a fifth of the world's traded oil transits; to intervene if Syria's regime unleashes chemical weapons in its 22-month-long civil war; and to host fighter jets that provide close air support to troops in Afghanistan.
A critic of the two-carrier policy, military budget analyst Winslow T. Wheeler, says the operational tempo "has been a problem because [the Navy has] been delaying the maintenance events and doing that to enable longer deployments. That simply means you're building up a longer bill for the problems that you need to fix when it does get back to port and needs this long-term maintenance."
Mr. Wheeler, director of the Straus Military Reform Project at the Project on Government Oversight, says the two-carrier policy is unnecessary.
"They're just there as signposts to demonstrate in some visible fashion American agitation about Iran. If you want to generate air-to-ground sorties against Iran, they're not a good way of doing it," he said. "But they're accepted as a useful tool in demonstrating that America is feeling hostile towards you, and that's why they're there."
‘Something is going to give'
The Navy plans to increase its number of ships from 287 now to 295 in 2020 by adding a variety of smaller vessels that will free up some of the largest ships for deployments, Adm. Greenert said.
But military analysts say that defense spending cuts over the next decade will make it extremely difficult for the Navy to add ships or even maintain 11 carriers.
"You used to be able to buy a Nimitz-class carrier for about $5 billion," Mr. Wheeler said. "The new Ford-class carrier costs so far about $13 billion and that's going up, not down. That's just to buy it. And they're very expensive to operate."
In addition, the Navy's plans to redirect attention and assets to the Asia-Pacific region, in accordance with a new defense strategy, likely will overstretch maintenance resources and overstress personnel, he said.
"Something is going to give," Mr. Wheeler said. "The Navy doesn't have enough ships to do all of that, and its plans to buy new ships makes all those things worse because the new ships are so much more expensive and so much more costly to operate. The Navy is headed in the wrong direction if it wants to have a more active presence in the future."
Seth Cropsey, a former deputy undersecretary of the Navy under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, said lawmakers and administration officials need to consider carefully the Navy's size in relation to its mission.
"I think it's important that we increase the current size," said Mr. Cropsey, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute. "The commitments that our Navy is being ordered to maintain … call for a Navy approximately 70 ships larger.
"So 350 [ships] would make it a lot easier for the Navy to do what it's being asked to do, and the carrier numbers would have to increase proportionately," he said.
Aircraft carriers are important because they provide a powerful demonstration of American will that can deter conflict, calm tensions and assure allies and hold together coalitions, as well as undertake humanitarian missions and disaster relief, Mr. Cropsey said.
"If deterrence doesn't work and if diplomacy [fails], they can go anywhere in the world where there are oceans and project power," he said. "That's proved very useful, in Kosovo, in Bosnia, in Desert Storm, in the most recent war in Iraq. The Navy carrier-borne aircraft provided a very large portion of air power that was used in Afghanistan."
A solutions-based platform
A carrier typically transports more than 60 aircraft and leads a battle group with 7,500 sailors, a guided-missile cruiser, two guided-missile destroyers, an attack submarine and a supply ship.
Mr. Cropsey said carriers provide solutions that land-based airfields cannot.
"Carriers don't rely on basing agreements with other countries to station our aircraft and troops because they're in international waters," he said.
"If we don't have a carrier fleet, our ability to project significant combat power around the world is reduced to where we have basing agreements, and basing agreements are not only increasingly difficult and problematic, but bases are fixed targets, where as carriers are moving targets," Mr. Cropsey said.
"In some cases, we have allies who very much want our assistance but don't want to be seen as being too reliant on the United States, or who have political differences in their own countries in working out status-of-forces agreements to allow us to put airfields there."
He noted that the Navy deployed four aircraft carriers, with about 400 aircraft, during the 1991 Persian Gulf War.
"Where would we have based those aircraft? We can't pile all that stuff on a Saudi airfield," he said. "Aircraft carriers are not a cheap solution, but it's a direct solution and it's proved to be an effective one."
Adm. Greenert said that if the two-carrier policy in the Middle East is extended beyond March, the Navy will need to adjust training and maintenance schedules.
He added that leadership also would have to be adjusted "so that, as we respond to the increased [operations] tempo, we've got the right leadership in the right place at the right time."