WASHINGTON — There is no US carrier operating today in the Middle East, a situation that is the product of several years of high-tempo operations and the need to catch up on major maintenance put off to sustain that pace. Carriers have been absent from Central Command's operating area before — the last time was in 2007 — but this particular gap has caught a lot of people's attention, even more so as the Navy has warned that another gap will occur in 2016 in the Pacific operating area.

The US Navy is also unable to meet its commitment to field two carrier strike groups, with another three able to surge and deploy should the need arise. Even if sequestration cuts are reversed and full funding is restored, service leaders have said it would be at least 2018 before the Navy would be able to regain those operational readiness levels.

"Gaps in carrier coverage threaten to undermine both the US ability to deter conflict and respond to crises," Rep. Randy Forbes, R-Virginia and chairman of the House Seapower and Projection Forces subcommittee, said Tuesday during a hearing on the carrier situation. Members of the House Subcommittee on Readiness joined with Seapower members in the hearing.

And even as Sean Stackley, the Navy's top acquisition official, acknowledged that the carrier "is at the very core of our maritime strategy," he and a panel of admirals provided detailed testimony why shortages will continue, and why the fleet will remain at 10 ships for the time being, rather than the 11-ship fleet mandated by Congress.

"We require 11, today we have 10," Stackley said. "We have more in depot maintenance today than we would normally have under a stable operational cycle. So we have a shortfall in our ability to generate the forces we need."

Exacerbating the effort to restore the 11-ship fleet are delays in getting the new carrier Gerald R. Ford (CVN 78) to sea. The ship, which will be delivered and commissioned in 2016 as the first of a new carrier design, was to have made its first deployment in 2019 after extensive tests and training. But the Pentagon decided in early August to acquiesce to the urging of Michael Gilmore, director of the Office of Test and Evaluation, and carry out shock tests on the Ford rather than wait, as the Navy had planned, to perform the tests on a later ship in the class.

Now, said Rear Adm. Thomas Moore, the Navy's program executive officer for carriers, "because of the shock trial it will be 2021" before the Ford deploys.

The ship the Ford will replace, the Enterprise, was inactivated in late 2012, reducing the fleet to 10 ships.

There also will also be delays in completing the next carrier, John F. Kennedy (CVN 79), which is to replace the Nimitz. Stackley explained the Navy's strategy to complete hull, machinery and equipment work on the ship in one phase, then bring the Kennedy back in the shipyard at a later time to finish work on the combat and electronic systems.

"CVN 79 is the numerical relief for the Nimitz which retires in 2025," Stackley told the lawmakers. "The Navy was looking at the construction plan for the 79 to support a heel-to-toe replacement of the Nimitz. That is not an optimal situation for the shipbuilder," he said, noting it was a unique situation at Newport News Shipbuilding.

"Separately we're looking at how to reduce cost," Stackley continued. "There is work better suited for being accomplished outside the construction yard where third parties could bid on it competitively."

Also, he added, "systems that could be subject to obsolescence by the time the ship is complete, we looked for an opportunity to install those systems as late as possible."

He also noted that a new Enterprise Air Surveillance Radar is being developed for the Kennedy, a system that "would not be available to install on the Kennedy during the first [construction] phase, but would be available on the second phase."

The split completion approach, he said, "seems to be the right balance. It is unique to 79, we will not have this opportunity with CVN 80," a new Enterprise.

Forbes, in his opening statement, declared he is "pleased that this administration has recognized the harm that the high OPTEMPO has been doing to the ships and sailors that make up our overextended fleet. But while we seek to stabilize the demand for carriers, we should also seek to maximize their supply."

Rep. Joe Courtney, D-Connecticut and ranking member of the Seapower subcommittee, joined with Chairman Forbes in supporting the carrier fleet.

"The Navy and Congress must continue to work together productively to ensure that we deliver our new carriers in a timely, cost-effective way to get back to the 11 carrier force as soon as possible," Courtney said.

After the hearing, Rep. Mike Conaway, R-Texas, whose land-locked district lies in the heart of the state, introduced a bill to mandate an increase in the number of operational carriers from 11 to 12.

The bill, which has virtually no chance in the present economic environment, makes no mention of the 60 or so aircraft that would be needed to fly from an extra ship, nor the 4,000-plus sailors and airmen needed to crew the ship and aircraft, nor of the escorts to protect another carrier.

It is generally accepted that the cost of the aircraft and crew of a carrier are roughly equal to the ship's purchase price.

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