Analysts: Strike Group Extension Shows Navy's Deployment Goal Flaws

The aircraft carrier USS Harry S Truman in the Strait of Hormuz. (AFP Photo/Kristina Young)
The aircraft carrier USS Harry S Truman in the Strait of Hormuz. (AFP Photo/Kristina Young)

MANAMA, Bahrain -- The Truman carrier strike group's extension in the Middle East shows the U.S. military commitment to accelerate the campaign against the Islamic State group, but some analysts believe it also shows why the service's plan to limit carrier deployments is unrealistic.

Last week, the Navy announced the strike group would be extended for 30 days to continue supporting regional security and operations against terror networks in the Middle East.

The USS Harry S. Truman's deployment was supposed to be the first time the Navy would hold a carrier to a seven-month tour -- a move announced in 2014 -- in an attempt to provide stability for sailors and their families. But the flattop and its attached air wing have played a major role in the coalition to defeat the Islamic State militants, setting a record for the most carrier-based ordnance dropped during Operation Inherent Resolve by delivering 580 tons of ordnance through April 15.

"The number of strikes demonstrates that we are committed to the president's No. 1 priority to accelerate the fight against (the Islamic State)," 5th Fleet Spokesman Lt. Ian McConnaughey said in an email.

Simply put, the strike group is too valuable to let it go home.

A lot of careful consideration and deliberate planning went into the Truman's extension, Navy Spokesman Lt. Cmdr. Tim Hawkins said, including the impact on sailors, families, and fleet readiness.

"This is a situation that is an exception rather than the rule," Hawkins said. "That's how we view it."

The extension, however, comes at a time when leadership has had to make difficult decisions.

In 2014, Adm. Jonathan Greenert, then-chief of naval operations, said he wanted seven-month deployments to be the standard -- a goal the Navy has pursued since.

"We think it's a sustainable goal," Hawkins said. "It balances needs to generate ready forces, support local presence requirements, respond to contingencies, and provide greater predictability and stability for sailors and their families."

And while many Navy platforms have managed to get down to predictable and sustainable deployment lengths, carriers have struggled due to an increased demand that has worn down the fleet.

Last Fall, the Navy chose to have a gap in carrier presence in the Middle East for the first time since 2007, and it said more gaps were possible.

The Truman was already replacing the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower on this deployment because the Ike's back-to-back deployments in 2012-2013 led to a significantly extended maintenance availability.

News that the Truman would stay longer than planned didn't surprise Bryan McGrath, managing director of the Ferry Bridge Group, a business specializing in National Security and Defense consulting.

"Not only is it not surprising, it's predictable," McGrath said. "We are going to keep having these problems until the country wakes up and realizes we don't have a big enough Navy."

Currently, with the Navy's 10 aircraft carriers, seven-month deployments are "mathematically unobtainable," McGrath said.

The Navy sails right on the edge of being able to meet its global presence, said Bryan Clark, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. If one little thing goes wrong, such as the need for increased presence or maintenance delays, there will be a necessity for gaps or extended deployments.

The average length for deployments had shot up from a little over 6 months in the mid-2000s to more than 8 months or longer since 2012, leading to significant problems for the Navy.

Because of these long deployments, ships have suffered additional wear and tear while sequestration budget caps and shipyard constraints have left the Navy struggling to meet maintenance schedules, a U.S. Government Accountability Office report released Monday said.

To address these challenges, the Navy created the Optimized Fleet Response Plan in 2014, which would create predictable and sustainable force cycles that support maintenance and training while maximizing employability.

"The first three aircraft carriers to enter the optimized schedule have not completed maintenance tasks on time," the GAO said, "a benchmark that is crucial to meeting the Navy's employability goals."

The report also noted because only a small portion of the fleet has entered an optimized cycle, it's too early to assess plan's efficacy. Also, no carrier has completed an entire optimized cycle -- the Eisenhower is expected to be the first.

The Navy expects to have the optimized response plan fully implemented by 2020, Rear Adm. Jeffrey Harley, deputy chief of naval operations for operations, plans, and strategy, told a House Armed Services Committee hearing last fall.

"The Navy has good intentions with OFRP, but it is not sufficient in the real world with the number of carriers we have," McGrath said.

Later this year, the new Ford-class aircraft carrier USS Gerald R. Ford will be commissioned, bringing the Navy's carrier count back up to 11. But that may not immediately alleviate pressure on the carrier fleet, McGrath said.

"It'll take a certain period of time for it before it enters a deployment cycle," MgGrath said. "If Congress gets their way and shock trial the Ford, that will delay it joining the deployment cycle even longer."

Currently, the Ford isn't expected to deploy until 2021.

In the meantime, the Navy remains committed to meeting seven-month deployments, Hawkins said. He added Ike is aiming for a seven-month deployment.

"Truman's extension is not necessarily a problem, but a symptom of the Navy's problem," Clark said, "that OFRP can't maintain a carrier on station in Pacific and Middle East unless everything goes perfect."

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