Even as the number of available carriers has dropped, the total amount of time the remaining flattops have been spending at sea has increased. USNI News calculated that the service’s carriers had spent 855 days at sea, collectively, between January and October of this year. This was already 258 days more than the collective at-sea time for the service’s carrier fleets in all of 2019, representing a 40 percent year-on-year increase.
All of this, together with the COVID-19 pandemic, has put immense strain on the four currently available Nimitz class carriers. As a result, double-pump deployments, which Defense News‘ David Larter described back in September as “a break-glass-in-case-of-emergency maneuver that puts enormous strain on the crew and the equipment,” have become increasingly the norm.
This also notably comes two years after then-Secretary of Defense Mattis announced plans to shake up carrier deployments to both make them less predictable, and therefore more difficult for potential adversaries to plan around, and shorter overall. “They’ll be home at the end of a 90-day deployment. They will not have spent eight months at sea, and we are going to have a force more ready to surge and deal with the high-end warfare as a result, without breaking the families, the maintenance cycles – we’ll actually enhance the training time,” he declared to members of Congress in 2018.
This, of course, has not come to pass. The Navy’s fleets, overall, have already been under increasing operational strain in the past two decades, due to a number of factors, including significant maintenance backlogs, which have only been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. The threat of outbreaks has also forced ships and their crews to stay at sea longer, with very visible impacts in the form of often rusty vessels returning home after protracted deployments. Multiple news reports have made clear that morale is suffering, too.
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have already explored in depth in the past how, even before COVID-19 further complicated the situation, the Navy’s fleets, along with their crews, were being progressively worn down and that it was being faced with ever-diminishing returns that would have cascading impacts across the service. The additional strains from double-pump deployments only add to the figurative and literal bills that the Navy will have to pay down the road in order to get out of this increasingly worrisome cycle.
As it stands now, the Navy is also trying to balance its current operational needs with a desire to significantly grow the overall size of its fleets, to a total of 500 ships or more, in the next 25 years. This includes calls for light aircraft carriers, an idea the service has explored, but passed on in the past. There has also been talk of repurposing amphibious assault ships for a similar role, to help provide additional carrier capacity, something the Navy, together with the U.S. Marine Corps, is already experimenting with.
Formal approval of this force structure plan, presently known as Battle Force 2045, which you can read about in more detail in this past War Zone piece, had already been pushed back and now appears to be on hold until President-Elect Joe Biden and his new administration takes office next year. How the Biden Administration may seek to tackle the existing strains on the Navy’s fleets, including on its carriers, remains to be seen.
In the meantime, with the demand for these ships showing no signs of slowing down, the flattops the service does have available look set to continue pulling multiple deployments in relatively short time spans.
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