MANAMA, Bahrain — The amphibious assault ship USS Bataan returned to open waters Friday after undergoing much-needed maintenance after its near-record 135 days at sea in an area of heightened tension, which put a strain on the amphibious ready group and the ship’s crew.
The Bataan amphibious ready group's long stint at sea was symptomatic of how stretched the Navy's amphibious fleet is. Responding to flashpoints across the Middle East and in the Mediterranean Sea stretched the Bataan group's resources almost to the limit as officials warn that the Navy is struggling to meet security challenges around the globe because of a smaller fleet.
The Bataan group with more than 4,000 sailors and Marines is in the midst of an eight-month deployment that started in February. The group, based in Norfolk, Virginia, has spent most of its time in the Middle East and Mediterranean Sea.
An amphibious ready group is often referred to as the “Swiss Army Knife” of the joint forces but the Navy has reluctantly agreed to reduce its fleet requirement from 38 to 33 in an era of shrinking defense budgets. It is a move the Marines have repeatedly warned against.
GRAPHIC | The number of U.S. Navy amphibious ships
“Whether it’s terrorists organizing in a land campaign or whether it’s a disaster at sea that requires a humanitarian intervention, our skill set is applicable across the range of military operations,” said Marine Brig. Gen. Gregg Olson, commander of Task Force 51/59 and in charge of the amphibious forces deployed to U.S. 5th Fleet. The fleet is based in Bahrain and covers the Middle East region.
In May, Bataan’s participation in a large-scale annual exercise in Jordan was cut short when it was ordered to the Mediterranean for the possible evacuation of U.S. personnel from Libya because of escalating fighting there.
Last month, fighters with the Islamic State group, which seeks to create a caliphate across swathes of Syria and Iraq, threatened Baghdad. As a result, the USS Mesa Verde, an amphibious transport dock ship that is part of the Bataan ready group, was ordered into the Persian Gulf for a potential Iraq contingency operation, stretching the group’s assets near its limits. The group also includes the amphibious dock landing ship USS Gunston Hall and the embarked 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit.
“We came right up to the line a couple of times but we never stepped over the point to say, ‘We can’t do that because we don’t have X,’ ” said Capt. Neil Karnes, commodore of the amphibious squadron. He said “the capacity and flexibility” of the group is phenomenal.
But a decreasing number of amphibious warships in the Mediterranean and elsewhere is leaving a security gap, officials warn.
On Friday, Assistant Commandant Gen. John Paxton Jr. told the a House Armed Services subcommittee that the Navy and Marine Corps reduction in the amphibious fleet requirement from 38 to 33 ships — currently 32 ships in the fleet — calls into question the ability of forces to deploy quickly and stay as long as needed at international hotspots such as Syria and Iraq.
“We struggle under the existing number of ships today,” he said.
Sudden humanitarian disasters and conflicts in Africa, the Middle East and the Pacific are forcing the Navy and Marine Corps to pull ships from repair shipyards and force them into service or delay needed maintenance, he said.
The number of amphibious ships is slated to top out at 33 in the next few years and expected to remain there for at least a decade, according to Sean Stackley, assistant Navy secretary for research, development and acquisition.
A defense official told Stars and Stripes on Tuesday that there are no plans to put a second amphibious ready group in the Mediterranean or the Middle East in the immediate future; the Bataan group is scheduled to be relieved by another in the next few months.
Spending 135 days at sea — the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt holds the record for consecutive days at sea, spending 159 days underway after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks — during a period of sometimes high tension was a challenge for the Bataan’s 1,800 sailors and Marines.
Morale was a “huge concern,” Karnes said. “We watched it closely. ... We did things to make sure people were pumped up and informed on the mission.”
Participating in real missions — not just exercises — helped keep spirits high, said sailors interviewed by Stars and Stripes aboard the ship.
“There’s a mission being done at hand. We’re out here defending people and saving lives, so it kinda makes it worthwhile,” Petty Officer 3rd Class Joel Meka said.
“It was rough, I’m not going to say it wasn’t,” Petty Officer 2nd Class Philip Strube said. But organized recreation helped the time pass.
“You look forward to a spades tournament every Tuesday night, and before you know it, 10 weeks go by and there’s 70 days out of the way,” Strube said.
For Seaman Apprentice Ashley Weisel, on her first deployment, connecting with family and friends helped her push through. “Email is my best friend, definitely; Facebook is a lifesaver. I never thought I would say that, but honestly it is.”
The Bataan’s 10-day visit to Bahrain provided an opportunity for maintenance.
Boilers were taken offline to repair piping and replace pumps in engineering; crews cleaned out air-conditioning systems; technicians replaced an antenna for air traffic control; and the flight deck was painted.
Sailors and Marines did get some liberty while in Bahrain — many visited malls and simply enjoyed interacting with people outside the confines of the ship.
Karnes said he doesn’t think 135 days at sea is the new norm for the Navy and said the ship was currently projected to return home on schedule in October.
“But if something happens, we will respond to it and do what we need to do.”
Stars and Stripes reporters Travis J. Tritten and Jon Harper contributed to this report.