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.