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What's going on with the USS Wasp?

Why hasn't the amphibious assault ship USS Wasp done a normal deployment since 2004?

That's the question at the heart of an excellent story by Defense News' naval maven, Christopher P. Cavas, who points out that even as Navy leaders bemoan their operational tempo and send ships on deployment for seven, eight, nine months or more -- they've kept the Wasp on a short leash.

Wrote Cavas:

Instead of loading up hundreds of Marines and their gear from a Marine expeditionary unit (MEU) for extended operations with an amphibious ready group (ARG) — like all other amphibious assault ships — the Norfolk, Va.-based Wasp has been held out of the deployment rotation and generally kept close to home.

While sister ship Kearsarge completed an 8½-month cruise in 2011, and the Bataan got back in February from a deployment lasting 10½ months, Wasp’s longest time at sea in recent years didn’t even reach four months. The ship’s absence from the front lines isn’t a new development. Its last MEU/ARG deployment ended in September 2004, nearly eight years ago. So what is up with Wasp?

“USS Wasp is currently configured to serve as the Navy’s Joint Strike Fighter test platform,” Lt. Cmdr. Mike Kafka, a spokesman for U.S. Fleet Forces Command, wrote in an email. “As a result of Wasp’s assignment as the JSF test platform, she is not currently in the rotation of amphibious assault ships participating in scheduled routine overseas deployments. USS Wasp remains available for operational tasking; however, she will remain the test platform for JSF for the foreseeable future.”

But the JSF testing mission began only last year. A Marine Corps F-35B short-takeoff, vertical-landing aircraft — a model that eventually will operate from all assault ships — made the first JSF landing on the ship Oct. 3, the first day of about two weeks of tests that month. No more JSF flights have since taken place from the ship, and none is scheduled this year. Flight tests of the new jet aren’t scheduled to resume until the summer of 2013.

The dedicated JSF mission might explain why Wasp hasn’t deployed recently. But why didn’t Wasp deploy between 2005 and the advent of the JSF tests in 2011? Spokesmen in several Navy and Marine Corps commands repeatedly declined to answer that question, pointing to the JSF test mission. The decision to use the ship in that role, Kafka said, was made in 2009.

The Navy's statement that the Wasp is "available for tasking" brings to mind its official language about the F/A-18 Hornet fighters flown by the Blue Angels: They can be sent to the fleet any time they're needed, so no, to answer the killjoy question that just popped into your head, this air show isn't frivolous. Of course, the Navy would have to be in quite a jam to pull the Blue Angels' jets and start them flying off carriers.

So too, it appears, with the Wasp. Navy commanders seem to have decided to make it a kind of mascot for the Atlantic Fleet. As Cavas writes, it makes visits for Navy Weeks; it did a little trip down to Southern Command; it hosted reporters during the Navy's "Bold Alligator" amphibious dog and pony show. Now it's been modded out as the test ship for the Marines' F-35B Lightning II, with special surfaces, sensors and other equipment to accommodate the new jets.

The thing is, another F-35B isn't scheduled to fly out to the Wasp again until 2013, Cavas writes. So while other ships and other sailors respond to what the Navy has described as an impossible demand from combatant commanders, the Wasp apparently will remain close to the U.S. for the foreseeable future.

The Navy has made choices like this before. As Cavas writes, the cruiser USS Lake Erie has been dedicated for years to testing ballistic missile defense systems, and we've also seen that the littoral combat ship USS Independence is going to focus on module testing rather than deploying. And as Navy spokesman Lt. Cmdr. Chris Servello Tweeted on Monday, there are no "good" missions and "bad" missions -- the Navy has to do what it has to do.

"Not a fan of comparing ship tasking -- is doing JSF testing any less important or dangerous than an ARG MEU float? Not mine to judge," he wrote.

Proving the B can work as advertised is pretty darn important, the Marine Corps would probably argue, and worth the full time of a ship and its crew. Still, Cavas' story underscores a disconnect between what the Navy says and what it does. Its leaders love to tell Congress and anyone else that the fleet is working overtime, that it can't continue at this pace, that extended deployments, foreign-port crew-swaps and other hardships must become the norm. If nothing else, examples such as the Wasp make that kind of rhetoric difficult to understand.

Does the ship have some kind of problem? Cavas wrote of "rumors" about a "deficiency" with its combat system -- which would explain why commanders would want to keep it in friendly waters. The Navy denies that, but with the fleet's Board of Inspection and Survey reports classified, there's no way for us open-source normies to know exactly how the Wasp fared in its last inspection.

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