NAPLES, Italy -- One faulty cooling pump has extended, delayed or expedited deployments for at least four aircraft carriers in an unusual domino effect that will result in a reduced U.S. Navy presence in the Middle East amid continuing tensions in the region, Navy officials say.
The USS Nimitz had been scheduled to deploy to the Middle East in January to relieve the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower.
But a broken cooling pump on the Nimitz was discovered while the carrier was conducting sea training days, and a decision was made to keep the ship in Bremerton, Wash., until it could be repaired, a Navy spokesman said.
Under the revised schedule, the Eisenhower will return early to its homeport in Norfolk, Va., for two months in late December so the crew can spend the winter holidays at home and the ship's flight deck can be resurfaced. The regular maintenance period carriers undergo when returning from sea will be delayed. The ship will then return to the Middle East in late January for a four-month tour.
The Eisenhower, which departed Norfolk in June, had been scheduled to be at sea for 10 months, including roughly seven months in the Middle East.
The schedule changes mean the USS John C. Stennis will be the only Navy carrier in the Middle East in December and January, a shift from earlier this year, when three carriers patrolled the region. The Stennis was sent to the Persian Gulf four months ahead of schedule in August.
"Our Navy is in high demand, operating forward all over the world," said Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert in a statement. "Expanded maintenance work on USS Nimitz was unpredictable and has required us to establish a carrier schedule that satisfies our commitments overseas and most importantly is mindful of the stress on our Navy family. This is the right thing to do."
The USS Harry S. Truman's planned deployment to the Middle East also has been moved up to late January. It previously had been scheduled to relieve the Stennis in March.
The Nimitz is now expected to deploy to the Middle East in summer 2013. The other ships in the Nimitz Strike Group will deploy in January as originally scheduled. They are the USS Higgins, USS Shoup, USS Stockdale and USS William P. Lawrence.
The Nimitz has been in Bremerton since it returned from the Middle East in 2010. Repairmen must cut a hole the size of a small car into the side of the carrier, remove the broken pump, install a new one and patch up the hole, the Navy spokesman said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the subject. The cooling pump is part of the ship's propulsion system.
The average carrier deployment is seven months, but multiple operations in the Middle East and Pacific have seen sailors' time at sea inch toward nine to 10 months in recent years. Navy officials said they are aware of the extended sacrifice sailors are making, but describe the additional sea time as unavoidable as the Navy's resources continue to shrink.
The third carrier deployed to the Middle East earlier this year, the USS Enterprise, recently returned after an eight-month deployment. It is scheduled to be inactivated on Saturday, temporarily reducing the number of aircraft carriers from 11 to 10.