The aircraft carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower passes over the Hampton Roads Bridge Tunnel as the ship returns from deployment to Naval Station Norfolk, Va., in July 2013. The Navy announced in October, 2014, that after more than a year in the shipyard, the Eisenhower wouldn't be ready to return to the fleet and wouldn't deploy next fall, as planned.
Aircraft carriers are perhaps the most powerful expression of U.S. military might. They’re also expensive and potentially vulnerable. In an era of fiscal constraint, defense officials, lawmakers and the commander in chief must answer a question that could have enormous strategic consequences: How many are enough?
NORFOLK, Va. — The Navy's recent decision to swap two scheduled aircraft carrier deployments revealed a problem plaguing the service: After years of conflict in the Middle East, its aging fleet of warships has been overtasked and under-cared for, leading to a growing maintenance backlog that threatens its ability to respond to future threats. Of the warships that entered private and public shipyards for repairs and upgrades last year, fewer than half rejoined the fleet on time and on budget, according to the Navy's own analysis. The factors contributing to the delays and overruns are many, and although the Navy has a plan to correct the problem, digging out of the hole will likely take years. Adm. Jonathan Greenert, chief of naval operations, explained last week how delayed maintenance can have a cascading effect across the fleet, leading to extended deployments, rescheduled or canceled departures — and uncertainty for sailors and their families. "It starts in the maintenance phase," Greenert told sailors aboard the amphibious assault ship Kearsarge during a visit to Norfolk Naval Station. "We need to give you all — and the carriers and the other large ships that need a lot of shipyard time — the time to get the maintenance done so that you're not spilling over into the training phases, which spills over into the preparation for deployment, and then into deployment. Then you're not ready to go, you're not manned, all the maintenance didn't get done, too much was deferred — and you start down a vicious cycle."The issue came to a head this month when the Navy announced that after more than a year in the shipyard, the aircraft carrier Dwight D. Eisenhower wouldn't be ready to return to the fleet and wouldn't deploy next fall, as planned. The aircraft carrier Harry S. Truman, 20 years younger than the Eisenhower, will instead forgo some scheduled maintenance and deploy in the Ike's place. The root of the problem, according to Rear Adm. Richard Berkey: For years, the Navy has deferred maintenance to keep ships deployed in support of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Now, as its budget shrinks, the service is trying to catch up on all the work required for ships to reach their expected service lives, said Berkey, the admiral in charge of maintenance at Fleet Forces Command in Norfolk. The problem was complicated last year by the across-the-board defense spending cuts demanded by sequestration. For six months after the cuts came down in early 2013, the Navy's public shipyards — including Norfolk Naval Shipyard in Portsmouth — were forced to impose a hiring freeze and restrict overtime for civilian employees. That led to a manpower deficit at a time when the shipyards were seeing increased workloads, said Chris Johnson, a spokesman for Naval Sea Systems Command. The Navy's public shipyards primarily work on nuclear vessels. Because of the manpower shortage, the Eisenhower will remain at Norfolk Naval Shipyard for several months longer than planned. In addition, work on eight submarines is backlogged, with delays ranging from two to nine months. Adm. William Hilarides, head of Naval Sea Systems Command, discussed the submarine backlog during a recent defense symposium in Northern Virginia. Although the Navy is trying to hire more workers, Hilarides told the audience, there aren't enough qualified workers to meet the demands. Hilarides suggested that this is the new normal for submarines: "We will not catch those schedules back up," he said.Earlier this year, Fleet Forces Command announced a plan to bring stability to carriers and surface ships. The strategy, known as the Optimized Fleet Response Plan, deploys ships less frequently — once every 36 months instead of once every 32 months. The plan makes seven-month deployments the new standard, as opposed to six-month cruises on paper that often stretched to eight months or longer. It also leaves more time for maintenance. The new cycle begins next year with aircraft carrier strike groups and will expand across the fleet in the coming years, said Berkey. The plan should allow the Navy to catch up on maintenance, Berkey said, but "there's a transition period that we're going to have to work our way through." The Eisenhower and Truman swap is a consequence of that transition, he said. The Navy's plan to get back on track is contingent upon factors outside its control. Should an overseas crisis demand additional assets, or should the Navy's budget get slashed by another round of sequestration in 2016, more ship shuffling would likely follow.