An Army Marches On Its Stomach And A Fleet Deploys On Maintenance, Especially Its Carriers

“An army marches on its stomach.” This truism of military mobility from the pre-industrial era has been attributed to both Napoleon Buonaparte and Frederick the Great. Nobody is sure if either actually said it, but both certainly experienced the reality of the maxim. In their time, not only did the vast armies of the era move by foot on the battlefield, they moved by foot to the battlefield. It was not uncommon for infantrymen to march hundreds of miles between major battles, and all that marching meant the soldiers had to be adequately fed. If they weren’t, they died of starvation, sickness, or were too weak to fight effectively and were slaughtered en masse, which is exactly what happened to Napoleon’s Grande Armée as a result of his poorly resourced invasion of Russia.

I was reminded of this pithy saying recently when I read that the US Navy aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman (CVN-75) would be leaving on its third deployment in just four years. While Navy officials insist the deployment was planned in advance, the fact that it was announced shortly after the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN-69) finished up an 18 month-long maintenance period that was originally scheduled for six months sparked speculation that the Navy was deploying the Truman to cover for the fact that Eisenhower simply wasn’t able to deploy.

In the same way that pre-industrial armies marched on their bellies, modern navies deploy on their shipyard maintenance cycles. Modern warships require a lot of maintenance, both for the physical and mechanical components of the ship, as well as for the advanced electronic combat systems. Scheduled maintenance cycles can be delayed, deferred, or shortened, but that inevitably results in more expensive maintenance down the line, and a decrease in net operational availability for the ship overall. This is a reality the U.S. Navy is encountering with increasing frequency, as a result of just under two decades of high operational tempo deployments following the attacks on 9/11. 

While the Navy has not necessarily skipped maintenance across the fleet, the high operational tempo has generated a massive maintenance backlog. Whether the maintenance backlog is a result of inadequate programmed maintenance or excessive operational wear and tear, the net result is the same. The Navy has a massive pile of deferred maintenance that will take years to work off. As a result, it is reasonable to conclude that it has less “surge capacity” now than at any time since the end of the Cold War. 

USS Harry S. Truman (CVN-75)., USN

Was The Truman Really Scheduled For Three Deployments In Four Years?

For obvious security reasons, the Navy does not publish ship deployment schedules. In this age of instantaneous communication, an aircraft carrier deployment can’t possibly be hidden. Once it deploys, it is common knowledge, but there is no need to give potential adversaries a long-lead heads up on which ships are deploying when.

For equally obvious operational reasons, sometimes those ship deployment schedules are adjusted. For example, shortly after the attacks of 9/11, the Navy surged a total of six Carrier Strike Groups to participate in Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF). So, ship deployment schedules are set in advance by Navy leadership, not shared publicly, and are adjusted to meet operational requirements. With that said, there is no reason to doubt the Navy officials who say that Truman was always scheduled for this third deployment in four years, following missions to the Middle East in 2015 and 2018. But whether or not Truman was actually scheduled for this most recently announced deployment, or was surged to cover for the non-availability of Eisenhower, is a distinction without a difference.

The fact remains, Eisenhower is not available for deployment because a planned six month maintenance period turned into an 18 month maintenance period. While the ship itself is now out of drydock and physically capable of operating at sea, it is not remotely ready to deploy. The Eisenhower can float, but floating and fighting are two different things. It takes a lot of time and practice to get the ship’s equipment calibrated, the ship’s crew retrained, the air wing integrated, etc. Throw in combined training for the support vessels and the command staff, and the Eisenhower Carrier Strike Group is at least six months from being deployable, probably closer to a year.

USS Dwight D. Esenhower in drydock., USN

Eisenhower’s Refueling and Complex Overhaul

The longest and most complicated maintenance period in a carrier’s lifespan occurs about halfway through its expected 50-year service life when the Refueling and Complex Overhaul (RCOH) maintenance takes place. Readers may recall that Navy leadership recently threatened to cancel Truman’s RCOH. It’s a complex issue, but in reality, the Navy never had any intention of retiring Truman early. It was simply a budget maneuver to try to force Congress to fully fund both the carrier procurement program as well as the carrier maintenance program. The White House quickly put its foot down on its own Pentagon’s budget request to sideline the carrier.

The RCOH centers around refueling the twin nuclear reactors that power the carrier plus inspecting, repairing, replacing, or rebuilding virtually every major component on the ship. It is an extremely complicated and expensive evolution and takes about four years to accomplish. Eisenhower started its RCOH in early 2001 and came out of the yards in 2005. At that point, in terms of materiel condition, it was the most capable carrier in the Navy, and it was returned to the fleet just in time to get tasked with multiple back to back-to-back deployments to the Middle East. 

Eisenhower conducts hard turns during a shakedown period after being returned to service following a maintenance period in 2011.  , USN

Groundhog Decade And The Never-Ending Deployment: 2005 To 2017

Eisenhower exited RCOH just as several other carriers were reaching the limits of their mechanical endurance. Keep in mind, while the Navy advertises a “surge capacity” for aircraft carriers, and executed that surge capacity in 2001-2002 for Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF), and again in 2003-2004 for Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF), that surge capacity comes with a big maintenance bill. 

Every time a carrier surges on an unplanned deployment, it inevitably racks up maintenance gripes that have to be worked off back in the shipyard. For Eisenhower, it became the backfill carrier that got tagged to cover the dip in carrier availability following the unscheduled surges from 2001-2004. As a result, Eisenhower deployed in 2006, 2009, 2010, 2012, 2013 and 2016. 

Most people reading this article will understand that those deployments were packed with combat sorties over Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and Libya. Keeping a high operational tempo going—like six wartime deployments in ten years—takes its toll on even the most robust equipment. Such was the case with Eisenhower

Eisenhower started that never-ending deployment cycle fresh off the RCOH, with brand new or reworked equipment. 12 years later, it was in dire need of major maintenance. 

Hornets launch from the Ike during a 2009 deployment to the CENTCOM area of operations. , USN

How A Six Month Shipyard Maintenance Period Turned Into 18 Months

Any modern warship is a complicated piece of machinery. A nuclear aircraft carrier is the most expensive and complicated piece of machinery on earth. There is a certain amount of service life in it, and the more you use it, the harder you work it, the sooner that service life is depleted. If you drive it to the breaking point, it will take time and effort to rebuild it. So, between the fact that the Eisenhower is at year 42 of its programmed 50-year service life, and the decade-long world tour it just completed, by the time it went into the shipyard for its planned six month maintenance period, a lot of other problems were just waiting to be discovered. 

And discovered they were. 

Eisenhower entered the Norfolk Naval Shipyard in August of 2017 and did not return to seagoing status until March of 2019. Ships go into the shipyard with a list of known problems and planned maintenance. If everything goes right, the planned maintenance fixes the known problem and that’s that. For Eisenhower, on the tail end of over a decade of high operational tempo and in the twilight of her career, it was assumed that some unexpected problems would crop up once the ship was in drydock. But nobody thought the maintenance issues would be as extensive as they were. 

As soon as Eisenhower was in the shipyard, and opened up for repairs, a host of other, unforeseen problems came into view. At that point, the only responsible option was to fix all the problems that were uncovered, which in this case extended the maintenance period from six months to 18 months. 

The stern, rudder, and screws of Eisenhower seen while in drydock., USN

Inadequate Maintenance Facilities Are Also To Blame

There is no mystery here. What happened to Eisenhower was completely predictable and the same or similar problems are presenting across the fleet on other platforms. While the obvious cause of the problem is excessive deployments, inadequate maintenance facilities are also to blame. The Navy force structure is currently about 280 commissioned warships, with an extremely ambitious plan of growing the fleet to 355 commissioned warships in just 15 years. But as this article shows, that goal of a 355 ship Navy seems wildly unrealistic, given the current woeful state of Navy support infrastructure, specifically shipyards capable of executing heavy, in-depth maintenance and repairs. 

Considering that the Navy’s current maintenance infrastructure is inadequate to execute a maintenance plan for 280 ships, absent a truly sustained investment in building shipyard and maintenance capacity, the Navy won’t be able to sustain a fleet of 355 ships, even if it gets them built, which seems unlikely at this point. 

The problem of inadequate maintenance facilities is most apparent with the attack submarine force. According to the General Accounting Office, inadequate capacity at Navy shipyards certified to work on nuclear attack submarines has resulted in a significant maintenance backlog for those platforms. As a result, USS Boise (SSN-764), has not been certified to dive, let alone deploy, for two years while awaiting maintenance. In total, Navy attack submarines have lost over two decades of operational availability while waiting pier-side for maintenance. 

Those submarines that are not in a deployable status while waiting for repairs are carried on the books as commissioned warships of the U.S. Navy, but are not capable of deployed operations. The Navy pays the financial cost of keeping the ships in commission, but gets no operational utility out of them because they are not deployable. As Napoleon said, an army marches on its belly. Likewise, a fleet deploys, or in this case, does not deploy, on the basis of its shipyard maintenance program. 

USS Boise photographed during better days while deployed in 2014. , USN

Why Is Unscheduled Carrier Maintenance A Problem?

Henry Kissinger famously said that the first question during any crisis was “Where are the carriers?” To paraphrase another one of his sayings, “An aircraft carrier is 100,000 tons of diplomacy.” Point being, aircraft carriers are unique in the U.S. force structure in terms of executing both “tip of the spear” force projection as well as less kinetic, but still important “presence” missions. 

Exercises with allied navies and port calls to “show the flag” remind potential foes, with the exception of Russia and China, that if a Navy aircraft carrier deploys to any given region in the world, on arrival it is the most capable air force in that area. Aircraft carriers are not important to U.S. strategy—they are indispensable and irreplaceable. Nothing else can do what they do. 

Due to a whole lot of deferred maintenance, the Navy has fewer deployable aircraft carriers right now than at any time since the end of the Cold War. At a glance, Eisenhower is not deployable as previously discussed. USS Nimitz (CVN-68) just got out of the shipyards in Washington State, and like Eisenhower, is at least six months from deployability, and probably closer to a year. USS Carl Vinson (CVN-70) just entered the shipyards in Washington for a planned maintenance period. USS George Washington (CVN-73) just entered drydock in Norfolk and is out of service for at least four years for RCOH. USS George H.W. Bush (CVN-77) is in the shipyards in Norfolk for maintenance. 

Finally, the Navy’s newest aircraft carrier, the USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN-78) was commissioned in 2017, but is nowhere near ready for deployment. Ford recently experienced some serious emergent problems with its propulsion plant, as well as the ongoing chronic problems with its completely redesigned and technologically advanced aircraft launch and recovery systems, and a litany of other issues.

That leaves a maximum of five carriers available for deployed operations. To be clear, it would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, for all five to deploy at once. Point being, with six of 11 carriers either in maintenance, or doing post maintenance workups, it is possible that the remaining five deployable carriers will experience an extremely high operational tempo which may, in turn, lead to deferred maintenance accumulating as was the case with Eisenhower. While this worst-case scenario is not inevitable, it is certainly plausible, and if it takes place, it will result in a death spiral of decreased availability and readiness that will be very difficult to recover from.  

To be clear, the current situation is not permanent and hopefully will prove to be the exception, rather than the rule. Navy leadership has clearly committed to working off the deferred maintenance issues and is working hard to protect the carriers from being tasked with anything other than regularly scheduled deployments, in order to restore a surge capacity. With that said, the increasingly dire situation paired with the dream of reaching a 355 ship fleet in the coming decades, resulted in the Navy recently looking into the possibility of bringing the USS Kitty Hawk (CV-63) back in to service, 58 years after it was commissioned, and nearly a decade after it was decommissioned.  

While bringing a 58-year old decommissioned aircraft carrier back to life was deemed unrealistic in the end, keeping the USS Nimitz (CVN-68) in commission past its expected 50-year life span is not. Nimitz is scheduled to be decommissioned in 2023, and as this article observes, the Navy is taking a serious, in-depth look at what it would take in terms of maintenance support to extend the operational service life of Nimitz beyond that. Extending the service life of a class of ships beyond its planned duration is not limited to carriers. The Navy is also looking at extending the service life of surface combatants, as well. 

USS West Virginia (SSBN-736) departs Norfolk Naval Shipyard in Portsmouth, Virginia. The Navy is finally trying to improve the crumbling infrastructure that is tasked with keeping its fleet alive. , USN

A Constant Tension Between Presence, Combat Operations, Surge Capacity, and Sustainability

The fundamental issue that is playing out here is the constant tension between what Combatant Commands (COCOMs) want and what Navy leadership wants. In a time of war, COCOMs are responsible for fighting the conflicts our country is engaged in. During peacetime, COCOMs are responsible for maintaining our alliances and deterring our enemies. In contrast, Navy leadership is tasked with “manning, training, and equipping” the fleet. In other words, the Navy prepares the fleet for deployment, then once those ships actually deploy, it turns them over to the COCOMs for employment, whether that is peacetime presence, alliance building, exercises, or wartime combat operations. 

Inevitably, COCOMs always want as much carrier presence in their Area of Responsibility (AOR) as possible. In peacetime, there is an almost limitless demand signal by our allies to have engagement with Navy aircraft carriers. For example, both South Korea and Japan are acquiring F-35s. Japan is also modifying its helicopter carriers to support F-35 operations. As Japan and South Korea develop their abilities to operate F-35s, they will want to exercise, demonstrate, and validate that skill set by operating at sea with Navy carriers and/or amphibious assault ships operating Marine Corps F-35Bs. 

There are a dozen other peacetime scenarios involving carriers from high-profile exercises, such as the biennial Rim of the Pacific exercise (RIMPAC) with its always entertaining live-fire Sinking Exercises (SINKEX), to more mundane peacetime operations like port calls in Singapore, a country that is also acquiring F-35s and will undoubtedly want more exercises with the US Navy as a result.

At the same time, our allies are asking for US Navy carrier presence in order to exercise their ability to operate with us and to validate their status as allies. U.S. forces are also engaged in combat operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria. The current pace of operations is low enough that the Air Force can handle manned strike operations in Syria without any help from the Navy, but this is the exception, rather than the rule. Be that as it may, this relative lull in combat operations is almost certainly temporary. 

In addition to peacetime presence operations and wartime combat operations, there is the issue of Iran. The U.S. is not at war with Iran, but the ongoing tension between the two countries results in a constant demand signal for aircraft carriers to be physically present in the Persian Gulf to serve as a deterrent to further aggression. While the USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN-72) was always scheduled to spend at least part of this year deployed in the Persian Gulf, its deployment to the region was accelerated in May to respond to an updated threat assessment by the U.S. Intelligence Community (IC). Lincoln has been in the US Central Command (CENTCOM) AOR since then and will be for some time to come. 

What the COCOMs want is maximum carrier availability in their AOR. What Navy leadership wants is to meet their legal mandate to maintain, train, and equip the Navy, and preserve the long-term materiel viability and surge capacity of the fleet. The more the COCOMs use the carrier fleet, the less “surge capacity” there is. These demand signals are in constant tension. 

USS Ronald Reagan alongside Japan’s ‘helicopter carrying destroyer’ Izumo. The ship is going to be refitted to accommodate F-35Bs. The Reagan will eventually receive F-35Cs, as well. , USN

Rotational Deployments, Fleet Response Plan, And Optimized Fleet Response Plan

From the end of the Cold War until the attacks of 9/11, the Navy balanced the competing priorities of COCOMs and the requirement to maintain, train, and equip the fleet for future availability by using a rotational deployment policy. Essentially, the Navy set maintenance, training, and deployment schedules for carrier strike groups far in advance. For the most part, the Navy and the COCOMs adhered to the schedule. Each COCOM was guaranteed a certain amount of carrier presence, with the caveat that the real world no-fly-zone operations and any associated combat operations would take priority. 

For the most part, Operation Provide Comfort I and II, Operation Northern Watch, Operation Southern Watch, Operation Deny Flight, Operation Deliberate Force, and Operation Desert Fox took place using regularly scheduled assets. Rotational deployment cycles were great for ensuring maintenance and training requirements were met, but the only real flexibility on the deployment side of the equation was extending carrier strike deployment beyond the planned six months. In short, rotational deployments were a supply-side construct, ensuring a steady, but a relatively inflexible supply of carrier strike groups would deploy to COCOM AORs. 

Following the attacks of 9/11, it was clear that rotational deployments would no longer be adequate. The demand signal generated was so large and enduring, it seemed obvious that short term surge requirements would be on the table for the foreseeable future. As a result, the Navy instituted the Fleet Response Plan (FRP) in 2003. The FRP had the same basic elements as rotational deployments. A given carrier strike group would go through maintenance, training and deployment phases, with an added emphasis on the sustainment phase following deployment. In other words, carrier strike groups returning from deployment would not immediately stand down into a maintenance phase, but would remain in a sustainment phase, capable of responding to a surge requirement. 

In 2014 the FRP was updated into the Optimized Fleet Response Plan (OFRP). OFRP was a nominal 36-month cycle, with 16 months for maintenance and training, followed by a seven-month deployment, then 13 months of sustainment training, with the carrier ready to execute a surge deployment if required. 

Nimitz, the Navy’s oldest operational carrier, seen during a recent drydock period. , USN

Mattis And Dynamic Force Employment

Even though the FRP and OFRP were less predictable than the rotational deployment model, they were still fundamentally predictable. As part of the 2018 National Defense Strategy, the term Dynamic Force Employment was used to describe a new approach to deployments, intended to produce certainty for the maintenance facilities and ships crews with respect to maintenance and training periods, but uncertainty in the minds of adversaries regarding the timing and duration of deployments. Both Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph Dunford championed the use of Dynamic Force Employment as a necessary construct in order to deal with the return to great power competition.  

At the beginning of this article, we talked about Truman getting hit with back to back deployments. In actuality, that was the first iteration of the unpredictable carrier deployment pattern that is the heart of the maritime component of Dynamic Force Employment. In the case of Truman, it went on deployment in April of 2018 to the Mediterranean, returned to homeport Norfolk, Virginia, in July of 2018, left on deployment again in August of 2018, returned to Norfolk in December of 2018, and is now preparing to deploy again later this summer or early fall of 2019. 

Having three carriers train together in the West Pacific, as had occurred in 2017, sends a strong deterrent message and makes for some great pictures, but it also adds to the strain on the Navy’s carrier fleet that will have to be made up for down the line., USN

So What’s The Answer?

We’ve looked at a lot of symptoms that are reflective of some obvious causal factors. The Navy is too small for what it is being tasked to do, and has inadequate maintenance resources in terms of time allocated to maintenance, as well as shipyard capacity to perform that maintenance. Fortunately, we’ve caught a bit of a break. While the four front war in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and Libya is not remotely close to being over, for the moment, at least, it is not generating an excessive demand signal for Close Air Support (CAS) or Time Sensitive Targeting (TST) on call, which is what the carriers spend a lot of time doing when deployed. So, if luck holds and there is no additional excess requirement for carriers to surge, and if the maintenance budget is fully funded for the foreseeable future, and the Navy is able to recapitalize and modernize its maintenance infrastructure, then the it might be able to work off some of the massive backlog of deferred maintenance and restore a little additional surge capacity back into the fleet. 

Aside from the temporary (trust me, it’s always temporary) lull in demand signal for excess carrier deployments, Big Navy itself has finally generated a comprehensive plan to address the “supply-side” of the problem, namely, taking on inadequate capacity at Navy shipyards, issues with the maintenance supply chain, and fixing the ship maintenance industrial base at large. The “Long Range Plan For Maintenance And Modernization Of Naval Vessels” can be found here.

Bottom line, if Congress continues to fully fund the maintenance plan, if external circumstances allow us to avoid significant unplanned surge deployments, if the Navy’s industrial base maintenance plan is implemented, the Navy should be able to restore some surge capacity in the not so distant future. As the saying goes, the enemy always gets a vote, but in terms of the things we can control, we are—just barely, and for the time being—getting back on the right track. 

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