ALEXANDRIA, Va. – Happy 4th, Drifters!
Celebrating our Nations’ independence is a wonderful occasion, but it comes with some mixed memories for me.
A few months after moving to Washington D.C. after my undergrad studies at University of Richmond (this must have been 2010) I moved in with some friends near Rhode Island Ave. and North Capitol St. It was an incredible place with a roof deck that had an amazing view of the Mall. We decided that it was the only place we’d want to be for 4th of July fireworks so we threw what was, objectively, an epic party. But a few hours after people went home, a fire broke out on the roof. We never found out what caused it – the investigators found no useful evidence – but we lost most of our stuff. It sucked.
The experience reminded me that there are few more serious, dangerous and damaging things than a fire, a lesson drilled into me in the Navy. The two chief enemies at sea are fire and flooding. If either are happening, everything else is secondary to getting it under control. Sailors understands this, which gives rise to one of my favorite Navy expressions: Hey shipmate, where’s the fire?
Say a sailor comes up to you with a situation that’s not an emergency but they are communicating it to you like you have no choice but to drop what you are doing and address their concerns. A common response would be, “Hey, shipmate, where’s the fire?” It’s an obvious point: unless something is on fire, calm down: I’ll get to it.
That old expression crossed my mind this week when I saw the carrier Truman was making its third deployment in four years. The Navy says doing this is about “stretching the limits of the Navy’s Optimized Fleet Response Plan,” according to a Navy Times report. But why? Where’s the fire?
That’s what I want to talk about tonight.
‘Beyond their Means’
There are two kinds of ships in the Navy: The USS Neversail and the USS Neverdock. Truman is getting a reputation as the latter.
She came back from an extended, 8-month deployment in July 2016. Then she deployed again 20 months later in April 2018, which is within the 36-month OFRP window, even a little later than she might have expected to deploy. Then she returned after a split deployment in December 2018. Now she’s expected to deploy this fall, according to the USNI report, which is, indeed, as the Navy says, within that 14-month sustainment period built in to OFRP that keeps the carrier ready to go.
So, the Navy is indeed playing by the rules of the game as they set out (you can read about OFRP, and see some helpful charts, in this GAO report). But, just for a second, lets imagine that this ship was crewed by robots who don’t have families, dogs, cats, pet lizards and things they like doing that don’t involve being at sea. Even if that were so, you’d still be sapping useful hull life and reactor core life at a rate higher than was planned for.
In other words, just because you are following your own rules under O-FRP, doesn’t mean that it’s a responsible decision to deploy the carrier for the sake of “stretching limits of the Navy’s Optimized Fleet Response Plan.”
If the question being asked at Fleet Forces Command is, “what if we really stretched the limits of our fleet deployment plan,” it seems there is a mountain of data readily available already from the past decade of overtasking.
So, what’s this about? The Navy doesn’t want to call this a “double pump deployment,” apparently, even though by any reasonable definition, deploying a carrier a second time in the same 36-month OFRP cycle would be a “double pump deployment.” Are we at war? Are we going to war? And if the answer to both those questions is, to the best of our ability to predict, “no,” then I ask: where is the fire?
There is a larger point to be made here, and the good thing is I don’t have to rely on my deep reservoir of anecdotal evidence to make it. Bryan Clark at CSBA made it quite eloquently in 2015 in a report called: “Deploying Beyond their Means: America’s Navy and Marine Corps At a Tipping Point.”
Experimenting with overtasking your ships is a highly questionable decision, coming as it does at the end of damn near a decade of deploying the Navy well beyond its ability to support with a significantly smaller fleet.
From the report:“Between 1998 and 2014, the number of ships deployed overseas remained roughly constant at 100. The fleet, however, shrank by about 20 percent. As a result, each ship is working harder to maintain the same level of presence. For example, the share of underway ships that were deployed rather than training near their home ports rose from 62 percent in 1998 to a high of 86 percent in 2009 before declining to approximately 74 percent in 2015.
The report goes on to describe a situation where overstretching the fleet creates compounding problems of breaking crews and their families and reducing the time available for maintenance that, in turn, creates maintenance backlogs.
The synopsis of the report is eloquent and to the point.
“Today the Navy and Marine Corps are facing a fundamental choice: maintain current levels of forward presence and risk breaking the force or reduce presence and restore readiness through adequate training, maintenance, and time at home.
“This choice is driven by the supply of ready naval forces being too small to meet the demand from Combatant Commanders, as adjudicated by the Secretary of Defense. To close the gap, the Department of Defense (DoD) will need to grow the fleet and force, base more ships overseas, or pay to maintain a higher operating tempo.”
The conclusion also bears quoting at length.
“The high OPTEMPO of the last decade has resulted in deferred maintenance, reduced readiness, and demoralized crews. The Navy has an ambitious plan to expand the size and capability of the fleet with its shipbuilding plan and return to a sustainable operational pace with O-FRP. Unfortunately, these plans may result in reduced presence in the near term and in the long term would require shipbuilding to be funded at a level that may not be supported by the Administration and Congress.
“The DoD and national leaders must decide to either reduce overseas presence or act to build up the fleet; base more of it overseas; or increase its readiness and OPTEMPO. Making this choice will require a reassessment of America’s maritime strategy and an honest appraisal of the readiness, posture, and risk of further deploying the Navy and Marine Corps beyond their means.”
It's not a trivial decision to double-pump a carrier. The Navy is trying to build a force of 355 ships based in no small part on being able to keep the current fleet longer than the current programmed hull life. If the Combatant Commanders, DoD, the National Security Council and the Navy can’t rein in their appetites, they’re not going to get there.
And, what’s more, putting this kind of a stressor on the fleet isn’t happening in a vacuum. As Clark points out in his study, this overstretching of the fleet has been happening for years. Quite apart from the undue strain put on the Truman’s crew, pushing the carrier back out the door when there is no discernable fire to extinguish appears unwise.