Rear Admiral Mike Shoemaker, commander Carrier Strike Group Three. (Christopher P. Cavas / Staff)
ABOARD USS JOHN C. STENNIS IN THE NORTH ARABIAN SEA — Like no other strike group, the aircraft carrier John C. Stennis Carrier Strike Group represents the stretch the U.S. Navy has been making to support the recently rescinded requirement for two carriers on station in the Middle East.
Stennis, with Carrier Air Wing 9, was home last year from a seven-month deployment for only a few months when the word went out to deploy again — four months earlier than planned — to support U.S. Central Command’s (CENTCOM) needs.
Stennis has been carrying the burden alone in the region since late November, when the carrier Dwight D. Eisenhower was forced to return home for a flight deck resurfacing, needed since the Ike’s deployment was being extended. Eisenhower is now on its way back to the region, but Stennis still doesn’t have a firm return date, although a spring return to Everett, Wash., is expected.
Last month, the Defense Department announced that the carrier Harry S. Truman would not deploy as scheduled, again leaving Stennis to cover the area alone.
Stennis strike group commander Rear Adm. Mike Shoemaker himself represents an extended deployment. After leading the eight-month deployment of the carrier Abraham Lincoln last year, Shoemaker was called on to take over this group in October after the temporary relief of the original commander.
Shoemaker spoke on his flag bridge recently about the challenges of extended deployments, high tempo, operating near Iran and how you get business done while budgets are shrinking back home.
And beyond the political noise that postponing the Truman deployment created, Shoemaker is uniquely suited to talk about the real-life consequences of losing that carrier in the region.
Q. Your strike group is essentially on back-to-back deployments, and so are you. The way the carriers and the strike groups are operating the past two or three years has been less than routine. What operations are you conducting, and have you seen those operations evolve?
A. It has been a big commitment to keep two carriers here, and there is a balance between our ability to support and what [CENTCOM commander] Gen. [Jim] Mattis needs. But I think the decision to cancel or postpone Truman’s deployment to preserve that surge capability — I think we had to go there; otherwise, we would have had everybody forward and then, all of a sudden, we would have had no ability to support.
But as far as operations here, I think what we miss if we have only one carrier here is the ability to support Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) almost continuously, and we were doing that with two carriers. We would operate routinely with one in and one out, one off the line doing maintenance and doing a little bit of training, getting a port visit to recharge, and then we would swap out. There were gaps, but minimal gaps in the way of coverage.
When we got out here, we spent a big chunk of time in the Arabian Gulf doing theater security and cooperation engagements. We were doing some other missions CENTCOM has directed, so there is a large Navy gap in OEF that happened to be during the winter season in Afghanistan, and I think the Air Force was able to cover for that. Now our primary effort is OEF. Now we are coming out of [Afghanistan]; the requirements are slowly coming down as we transition from our forces being out to the Afghan National Army and the Afghan National Forces.
There are some restrictions being placed on us. You have read about President [Hamid] Karzai’s comments on his guys using other-than-Afghan assets to conduct post-air support if you will.
As for other operations in the region, we pay very close attention to Iran, as you would expect. As strike commander, you are very interested in what is going on around your carrier, around your units and we work very hard to identify that. Occasionally [outside the gulf] we will get a maritime patrol aircraft that might come out, but in the gulf, it is almost a daily interaction with the Iranian forces. Over the time I’ve been here, they have depressurized a little or have given us a bit more standoff room both in the [Strait of Hormuz] and the gulf.
Where we have seen increased activity is in the aviation side and in unmanned vehicles. The most prominent area is [Iran’s] enforcement of their FIR, their Flight Information Region, which typically runs straight up the gulf. It is the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Kuwait on the western side of the gulf and the Iranian FIR on the eastern side. Lots more queries and attention paid by the Iranians to operations inside their FIR, which we never saw or very rarely saw previously when we were out here on the Lincoln.
You read about their attempt to try to shoot down one of our unmanned aerial vehicles, because when we operate in the gulf we are flying typically in the Iranian theater, but we stand off outside of their territorial waters.
So in that space where we have operated for many years, we now see a much more active observation, active engagement on the Iranian part, mostly just on the radio — it is almost always on the radio — usually professional.
Q. The anti-piracy mission has gotten a lot of publicity; reports are that the level of piracy in the Gulf of Aden has dropped significantly. The budget crisis also means fewer destroyers might be deploying. Will you continue assigning destroyers to that mission?
A. I think the new norm is this smaller number of DDGs. There are lots of other missions going on in the area of responsibility outside the counterpiracy mission, and they are spread very thin. So to commit to the counterpiracy mission, I think that will not be one of the primary places we stick the destroyers. We just do not have enough to go around.
Q. In terms of coalition operations, foreign destroyers and frigates have occasionally operated with the strike group. Is there a trend there?
A. I think we are seeing more. With Lincoln, we integrated with the British destroyer HMS Daring, and that was very successful. And we did some work with their sister ship Diamond on the Stennis up in the gulf, and it is a very capable air defense platform, easily integrated to our air defense network, to our cruiser, and with capabilities on par with our destroyers.
As we came outside the strait, we hooked up with [the French destroyer] Chevalier Paul. We spent three weeks with them and, as we worked, they took some of our air defense duties, the normal management of the air space around us, checking in and checking out our aircraft as they come and go from OEF. So, other than a little bit of a language barrier where their English was much better than our French, they did a great job interacting with us. It was a very successful integration and, again, a very capable ship.
As we find all of us struggling with budgets, I think we are almost driven to bring the coalition forces together.
Q. The budget crisis has wracked Washington, and the Navy has forecast all manner of problems. Out here, have you seen any evidence of belt-tightening?
A. We have not seen any, even in parts supply, logistics chains, no degradations in our sea days or flight hours yet, although if you read the information that is coming out from the chief of naval operations, there will be some reductions both in 7th Fleet and 5th Fleet in sea days and flight hours.
We have done some things internal to the strike group, trying to be good stewards of the money. We have looked closely at how we do port visits and manage our logistics. Our supply officer onboard here has done an incredible job, getting into the contracts with husbandry agents and asking questions about what we are paying for and is it really needed and could we come up with some kind of alternative? We are talking tens of thousands of dollars at each port visit in savings just by an aggressive supply officer and his young junior officers looking closely at the contracts and whether it just makes sense.
We are watching how we send folks back to travel to headquarters or out of the area, the same kind of travel restrictions everyone back in the U.S. is facing. We do not do any kind of travel that does not get my OK. It goes to flag-level review for conferences and things like that — going ashore, going back to the States, I get visibility on all of that.
From an operational perspective, we have not felt anything yet out here [from the budget crisis], but it is always on our minds, how it is going to impact us when we get back.
[Naval Forces Central Command commander] Vice Adm. John Miller was out for an all-hands call just three weeks or so ago, and the majority of questions from sailors were about sequestration impact to maintenance periods for the carrier, future deployment cycle and things like that.
But out here we are pretty insulated and I do not think it is worth the bandwidth to think about the what-ifs at home when we have a job to do.
Q. You have seen some of the mentions — by the Navy itself — about the possibility of open-ended deployments, with no relief in sight. Does that have an effect on people out here?
A. I have heard some of those comments. We are looking at ways to avoid that open-ended deployment. Every time I talk with sailors, they wonder about the schedule. They just want things to be firm, and I think as long as you are straight with them and give them a solid timeline, these guys have been incredibly resilient.
As I walk around, they seem to be in pretty good spirits. Morale is up; they see a bit of light at the end of the tunnel on this deployment. I think the hardest part is for the family at home. We will see down the road how much it becomes a calculus in future retention or service decisions.
There are only a couple of carriers that have done this recently. Eisenhower and Stennis have worked hard. There are others that are sitting back and not doing anything right now. Their turns will come, and I think we will eventually get to the point where we are back and have a few more ships available in the mix — it really depends on how sequestration goes.
Q. Nuclear ships are often thought able to run forever, but has the heightened operations tempo over the past few years had any effect?
A. We are using up our nuclear expected full power hours. On Lincoln, we were coming around to a reactor refueling overhaul scheduled to be every 25 years or so. The Lincoln was coming in about the 23-year mark, and we did not nurse her across the finish line to get home — but we watched very closely the [number] of full power hours we had left on the reactor as we were finishing up that deployment.
So if we continue to surge our nuclear carriers, we will use up that effective power. If we use up the fuel ahead of time, that has got to factor in as well.
The carriers are very well-designed, but we have been riding them hard, and that is I think a second-order effect of the permanent surge schedule.