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.”