NORFOLK, Va. — The U.S. Navy has long sought more flexibility in how its deployable ships are used, but it’s been hard to break out of the mold: the high-demand destroyers, for example, go through maintenance and training, most likely deploy as part of a carrier strike group, have a few months of free time upon their return, and then start the process all over again.

Slowdowns in maintenance work have exacerbated the problem, the commander of U.S. Fleet Forces Command said. Whereas ships should be cycling through that process and heading out on deployment every 36 months, maintenance backlogs and delays have pushed that to an average of 45 months. With more ships stuck in maintenance for longer, assembling a full strike group for deployment might now take up all the available destroyers on the waterfront.

That leaves few ships to pursue Navy priorities, Adm. Daryl Caudle said, from at-sea command courses to experimentation with new tactics to missions in less-frequented locations like South America or the Arctic.

But Caudle said he has two ideas to try to free up more bandwidth for the fleet.

Tweaking the carrier strike group

First, he told Defense News, he wants to make the carrier strike group staff more “self-contained” and less reliant on the destroyers and cruisers they operate with. This would mean ships could come and go from the strike group rather than be tethered to the aircraft carrier for a whole deployment.

Today, a carrier strike group staff is headquartered on the aircraft carrier, but the air defense commander is located on the cruiser. The sea combat commander, though located on the carrier, also serves as the destroyer squadron commodore and works closely with the destroyers’ commanding officers.

Caudle is mulling creating “surface ships that are a little bit more fungible — where I can have surface ships that can be independent deployers, but they can plug into the strike group a little more seamlessly without necessarily having to matriculate through the [training and deployment process] with them.”

The admiral said that would include creating a beefed-up carrier strike group staff that is not augmented by a destroyer squadron and would do all its missions — air defense, information warfare, sea combat and more — consistently from the aircraft carrier rather than on an escort ship.

If that self-contained CSG staff could be developed and certified for deployment, then destroyers could go through their training and certification process on their own timeline — in case they got caught up in a longer-than-planned repair period or were tasked with participating in a far-flung exercise, for example — and they could seamlessly come and go as escorts to the carrier without degrading the capability of the strike group staff.

“That improves my degrees of freedom. That gives me more options and doesn’t lock me to necessarily having to make them all go through the [workup] process as a team,” Caudle said.

But he acknowledged this idea is “pretty new and completely unvalidated up to this point.”

Still, Caudle said it’s a natural progression for the maintenance, training and deployment roadmap known as the Optimized Fleet Response Plan. Loosening the ties between the carrier strike group and the individual destroyers sailing with it would reduce the friction when maintenance runs long and increase the flexibility for destroyers to take on Navy-focused missions outside the normal joint force-led overseas deployments under the Global Force Management setup.

Caudle said creating and deploying carrier strike groups for the combatant commanders will always be the top priority. But when there are disruptions to the OFRP cycle and no additional ships on the waterfront, “that gives me less opportunity to [use] the ships for training events. It gives me less opportunity to do experimentation and demonstrations and exercises. It gives me an inability to have surface ships support the Submarine Command Course, for instance, that I would normally like to do.”

“It lowers the number of ships that I can give some of the infrequent but desirable missions that we’d like to do with our surface navy, such as support 4th Fleet for UNITAS or some of the things in South America,” he added.

Caudle also noted he’s the commander of naval forces for homeland defense, and freeing up more ready destroyers would bolster this mission.

“As I prioritize operations, I can’t put on the table not assembling the strike group,” but he is trying to make the strike group a little more fluid.

A Navy-only high-readiness force

The other effort is an even bigger change and is further along in implementation: the creation of what Caudle calls “Forward Deployed Force- Norfolk.”

The admiral said the Navy has previously weighed the value of a high-readiness force that can come and go from shorter missions and deployments as needed, compared a traditional force that’s trained and then expends its readiness in a typical six- or seven-month rotational deployment.

In the Pacific, where Caudle previously worked as the commander of Pacific-based submarine forces, it’s about a wash between having rotational forces out of San Diego and having high-readiness forces in Japan or Guam, Caudle explained. Due to the vast size of the Pacific, there’s no value in keeping a high-readiness force on the West Coast, he said.

But, due to the much smaller size of the Atlantic, Caudle said there’s a good argument for keeping a high-readiness force on the East Coast, either in Norfolk, Va., for surface forces or New London, Conn., for submarine forces. Those forces would not be part of the 36-month Optimized Fleet Response Plan cycle that supports rotational deployments under the Global Force Management setup; rather, they would do shorter maintenance and training periods here and there, amid tasking to Latin America, the Arctic, Europe, or in local waters for homeland defense.

“By doing that ... I have crews that are certified for the high-end things that they’re going to encounter, predominantly against Russian submarines. Because I have such a great relationship with [U.S. 6th Fleet], we can cross that Unified Command Plan line, working that with our 2nd Fleet and 6th Fleet,” Caudle said.

2nd Fleet leadership is already working options to support a first iteration of this idea, through an effort called Operation Steel Citadel. This effort would earmark ships to be kept in a heightened state of readiness for undersea warfare in the Atlantic.

The idea is similar to what Naval Surface Force Atlantic and Submarine Group 2 kicked off last fall with Task Group Greyhound — where a number of destroyers just back from deployment would be put into this group focused solely on anti-submarine warfare. They’d spend their time honing their skills and advancing ASW tactics and would be on call if Russian submarines were detected too close to American waters.

Caudle said he hoped to go even further with his FDNF-Norfolk idea. Rather than leverage six or eight months of time between the end of a deployment and the start of a ship’s maintenance period, as Task Group Greyhound does, the ships would be assigned to FDNF-Norfolk for an entire three-year cycle.

Perhaps three submarines and four destroyers, he said, would be “assigned to [U.S. Northern Command], but nothing would prevent them from being used in the [U.S. European Command] and NORTHCOM theater. I think it’s a more elegant approach to the undersea warfare problem we’re facing in the Atlantic,” he said. A pilot program would prove to the Navy it’s a sustainable model in terms of the manning, gear and training time it would require versus the readiness and operational utility it would put out, Caudle added.

Rear Adm. Brian Davies, commanding officer of Submarine Group 2 and deputy commander of 2nd Fleet — who was also involved in standing up Task Group Greyhound — is developing a few courses of action for Steel Citadel now, Caudle said.

“Is it possible? What would be the impact to our Global Force Management presence numbers? Could I take a little bit of risk on how much I source to the strike group” by providing four destroyers instead of six, he asked.

“How much does the strike group require versus how much I can flow to the point of need in a more dynamic sense, is the balance” the Navy needs to analyze before it can bring the Steel Citadel or FDNF-Norfolk concepts to life.

Task Group Greyhound’s start

Task Group Greyhound kicked off in Mayport, Fla., in September with two destroyers: Thomas Hudner and Donald Cook. Hudner was back from a deployment to Europe and the Middle East with the Dwight D. Eisenhower Carrier Strike Group. Cook was back from being forward deployed out of Rota, Spain. Both had several months before planned maintenance periods, so they would spend that time focused on the anti-submarine warfare mission.

Cmdr. Kurt Astroth, the executive officer of Donald Cook, told Defense News in a December visit to the ship that the destroyer — by virtue of operating in Russia’s backyard for so many years — had done anti-submarine work in the Mediterranean and other European waters, but only alongside NATO allies.

He praised the Task Group Greyhound assignment as a way to apply those skills to multi-ship ASW work between U.S. ships, and as a way to keep the crew focused during their sustainment period before heading into maintenance. Ships in sustainment don’t always have a clear purpose, he said, but Donald Cook has been fully manned, has quickly addressed maintenance issues and has kept on top of training and education requirements, with the goal of getting back out to sea and conducting anti-submarine warfare always top of mind.

Sonar Technician (Surface) Chief Petty Officer Russell Howe, the surface ship ASW specialist aboard Donald Cook, said it was important the entire crew have this chance to focus on the anti-submarine warfare mission. Other missions — launching a Tomahawk missile, conducting ballistic missile defense patrols, monitoring the skies for enemy aircraft — involve a small slice of the crew.

But to do anti-submarine warfare well, the entire crew must work together, understanding the environment and driving the ship to the right locations to properly understand the acoustic signatures the sonar specialists are picking up.

When Task Group Greyhound kicked off in the fall, the idea was to supplement Donald Cook and Thomas Hudner with two more destroyers, for a squadron of four, and then replace them as it was each ship’s turn to head into maintenance. The group would reach full operational capability last month, according to the plan, once these rotations of destroyers began.

The Defense Department’s decision to surge naval forces into Europe just ahead of Russia’s February invasion of Ukraine was good and bad for Task Group Greyhound. Both Donald Cook and destroyer The Sullivans, which was supposed to replace Donald Cook when it left Task Group Greyhound for its maintenance availability, were among the ships surged into theater. Donald Cook was already at peak readiness due to its participation in the task group, showing the benefit of keeping a high-readiness force on hand.

Still, the surge took the crew away from its ASW focus and ate into the supply of ships ready to replace it when the destroyer exited the task group for the repair yard.

“Our FOC (full operational capability) timeframe for Task Group Greyhound is now spring of next year. While the TGG model offers us a level of inherent flexibility, global operations, contingencies and required maintenance necessitated an adjustment to our FOC timeframe,” Lt. Cmdr. Jason Fischer, the spokesman for Naval Surface Force Atlantic, told Defense News.

Megan Eckstein is the naval warfare reporter at Defense News. She has covered military news since 2009, with a focus on U.S. Navy and Marine Corps operations, acquisition programs and budgets. She has reported from four geographic fleets and is happiest when she’s filing stories from a ship. Megan is a University of Maryland alumna.

More In Naval