The return of the Navy carrier Dwight D. Eisenhower to its Norfolk homeport just in time for New Year's means the Middle East is now without a carrier presence -- a rare occurrence amid a heated fight against Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria and a slew of burgeoning tensions in Russia, China, and elsewhere.
Chris Cavas of Defense News, who wrote about the absence of a carrier in the region, reports that the Eisenhower is set to be relieved by the George H. W. Bush, another Norfolk-based ship. But while carriers often overlap with each other for brief periods of time in theater during a handoff, the Bush has yet to depart for the 5th Fleet area of operations and may not do so for weeks to come.
The carrier is "unlikely do so before the Jan. 20 presidential inauguration of Donald Trump, according to a Navy source," Cavas writes. "The gap could last as long as two months, sources said, between the time the Eisenhower left the combat theater and the Bush arrives."
To blame are delays in scheduled shipyard maintenance for the Bush, which ended up spending a year in repairs as opposed to the planned eight months, emerging from the shipyard in July and hard-pressed to complete months of required pre-deployment training before the end of the year.
This is not the first time maintenance delays have led to a carrier gap in the Middle East in recent years. In October 2015, the departure of the carrier Theodore Roosevelt from the Persian Gulf left the region without a carrier to conduct air strikes on ISIS, a problem caused in part by a maintenance delay for the Dwight D. Eisenhower that forced the Navy to cancel its deployment and rearrange its carrier deployment plan.
Ultimately, the USS Harry S. Truman Strike Group would deploy to the Middle East in November 2015, ending a one-month carrier gap in the region.
The current carrier gap comes just five months after Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson marked a "milestone" for the service: six carriers underway simultaneously, including the Truman and Eisenhower in the Middle East and two deployed forward in the Pacific. This robust footprint did not last for long, however; the Truman returned home from its eight-month extended deployment later that month.