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Marines assigned to the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit run on the flight deck of the forward-deployed amphibious assault ship USS Essex (LHD 2) in 2010.
Marines assigned to the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit run on the flight deck of the forward-deployed amphibious assault ship USS Essex (LHD 2) in 2010. (Casey Kyhl/Courtesy U.S. Navy)

SASEBO NAVAL BASE, Japan — For the second time in seven months, mechanical or maintenance issues have prevented the USS Essex from meeting a commitment at sea, Navy officials said Wednesday.

The 21-year-old flagship of the forward deployed Expeditionary Strike Group 7 was scheduled to depart several days ago for Cobra Gold 2012, an annual exercise with Thailand. The mission was scrapped due to an equipment failure.

“It is true, the Essex will not be making Cobra Gold,” Task Force 76 spokesman Lt. Richard Drake said. “The cause is wear and tear.”

The Essex, known as the Iron Gator, is scheduled to undergo a hull swap with its sister ship USS Bonhomme Richard next month.

The scrapped mission is the latest in a series of problems for Navy ships. More than one-fifth of Navy ships fell short of combat readiness in the past two years, and fewer than half of the service’s deployed combat aircraft are ready for their missions at any given time, according to congressional testimony.

With an ascendant China on the high seas and deep Defense Department budget cuts over the next decade, the Navy is facing “glaring deficiencies that are nothing short of alarming,” U.S. Rep. Randy Forbes, R-Va., chairman of the House Readiness Subcommittee said in July.

Vice Adm. William Burke, deputy chief of naval operations for fleet readiness and logistics, told the committee that the Navy has “a limited supply of forces.”

“When you have these additional deployments, you sometimes impact the maintenance, or you impact the training, which will impact the maintenance,” he said. “So what we have is one event cascading into another, so we don’t get either of them quite right.”

About the time leaders were testifying before Congress, the Essex was limping back into port due to maintenance issues shortly after departing for biannual exercise Talisman Sabre 2011 with the Australians, Navy officials said at the time. It was able to participate in the exercises as a remote command element.

Navy officials said there are many reasons a ship like the Essex might have issues.

Forward-deployed ships in the region experience higher operational tempo and advanced wear and tear as they have a lot more to do than their stateside brethren, often missing scheduled maintenance, Navy officials said.

Lt. Anthony Falvo, 7th Fleet spokesman, said the Essex may have been impacted by missing maintenance.

“Pacific Fleet ships adhere to rigorous maintenance standards and maintenance periodicities per the Joint Fleet Maintenance Manual and other Navy directives,” Falvo wrote in an email to Stars and Stripes. “On any given day we have roughly 40% of our ships underway and we are meeting the requirements of the combatant commanders.”

Drake would not specify what piece of equipment failed on the Essex, but said it was not the engine. He added that the ship could get underway if it had to, but it is better to fix the piece of equipment now.

“It will be back up and running in time for its next commitment,” Drake said.

“The Essex is no spring chicken,” Drake said.

The Essex has been in the area for 11 years, Drake said, and provided humanitarian relief to Indonesian victims of the devastating 2004 tsunami, survivors of the Leyte mudslide in the Philippines in 2006 and victims of the Japanese earthquake and tsunami last March.

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