Sunday, July 18, 2004

ABOARD THE USS HARRY S. TRUMAN — Amid the stench of burning exhaust, fighter jets catapult off the flight deck over the shimmering Mediterranean as part of the first test of a new strategy aimed at exploiting the U.S. Navy’s fierce power while cranking up its speed.

The Harry S. Truman heads one of seven Navy carrier battle groups in the “Summer Pulse ‘04” exercise being conducted from the Pacific to the Atlantic to the Persian Gulf. A goal is to show allies and enemies alike that American maritime might can be tough and nimble in many theaters at once.

“Heretofore, we had always been on a pretty rigid and pretty stiff schedule,” said the carrier’s commander, Capt. Michael R. Groothousen, speaking softly recently amid shouted commands on the bridge. “Terrorists love predictability, so if you can be unpredictable, that gives us an added edge.”

Under the old system, lengthy maintenance and sailor preparation meant fewer ships were available to the Navy at any one time. But the war on terrorism shifted thinking in the U.S. military command.

Last year, the Navy announced a new strategy called the Fleet Response Plan. Summer Pulse ‘04, which lasts until August, is the Navy’s first chance to demonstrate the plan, with joint exercises involving allied nations, advanced training, logistical practice and port visits.

“This Fleet Response Plan is pretty new, and even I don’t understand everything,” said Lt. j.g.Dana Chapin of Cabool, Mo., who flies Sea Hawk helicopters for anti-submarine operations, search and rescue, and Special Forces support.

“A lot of the families don’t necessarily understand it,” she said. “The Navy is used to going just six months, and then you’re home for a long time. Now you’ve got to be ready to go maybe for a couple of months at a time, and come home for a couple of months, and maybe go again. So you have to be a little bit more flexible.”

The captain said sailors may find the new system “a little more hectic in their lifestyle.”

But Capt. Groothousen cited benefits, including “great training opportunities” and visiting more foreign ports. “That’s part of the reason that many of the young men and women join the Navy — to see the world,” he said.

In the past, a carrier typically deployed overseas for six months, then was at home for 18 months while sailors went back to school in the Navy and the ship was repaired and overhauled. A carrier was combat-capable for only about six months during a two-year cycle, so generally only two of the 11 stateside carriers could be deployed at a given time.

Under the new plan, as many as eight of the Navy’s 12 carriers can be readied for sea duty on short notice in case of a crisis. The Navy wants to be able to deploy six carrier strike groups within 30 days, and have two more ready within three months.

Petty Officer 3rd Class Donald Gentry of Baltimore, who works in the Harry S. Truman’s medical department, has heard all the Fleet Response Plan briefings, he’s read the memos and he knows that major change is afoot. But he also knew what he was getting into when he joined the Navy.

“When you sign the contract, you know it’s a 24/7 job. And this is what they’re paying you for, so you pretty much have to be there for them,” he said. “We can be ready at a moment’s notice, and hopefully people will be able to sleep better at night knowing that this is what we’re being trained for.”

The carriers taking part in Summer Pulse ‘04 are the Harry S.Truman, USS George Washington and USS Enterprise, based in Norfolk; USS John C. Stennis and USS Ronald Reagan from San Diego; USS Kitty Hawk at Yokosuka, Japan; and USS John F. Kennedy from Mayport, Fla.

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