Budget turmoil a threat to Navy’s plan to shorten deployments
By HENDRICK SIMOES | STARS AND STRIPES Published: December 2, 2014
ABOARD THE USS CARL VINSON IN THE PERSIAN GULF — The biggest challenge for the 4,900 sailors here isn’t the mission of supporting airstrikes against Islamic militants in Iraq and Syria; it’s coping with an unusually long deployment.
The San Diego-based USS Carl Vinson is in the fourth month of a 10-month deployment. Navy officials say it’s the longest scheduled deployment since the Vietnam War or, at least, in anyone’s experience.
“This is the longest deployment I’ve ever done,” said Capt. Karl Thomas, the Vinson’s commander. “We do it proudly, but at the same time, it’s a long time to be away from home.”
Navy leaders have a plan to reduce deployments to seven months in 2016, but it depends on Congress’ allotment of adequate funds for maintenance and manning. The Navy’s chief of naval operations, Adm. Jonathan Greenert, said that the extended deployments were due to budget “instability” over the past few years, including cuts related to sequestration.
Since the Vinson’s arrival in the Persian Gulf in mid-October, when it relieved the USS George H.W. Bush, the carrier has launched more than 500 sorties in support of Operation Inherent Resolve against Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria.
“The planes are taking off every day with bombs, and they’re coming back, sometimes with them and sometimes without them,” Thomas said.
During his Thanksgiving visit last week with servicemembers deployed to the Middle East, Greenert was pressed at various stops about the prolonged deployments.
“When will we go back to seven-month deployments?” a Petty Officer 2nd Class asked at an all-hands call aboard the Vinson.
Greenert told concerned sailors on the Vinson and other ships he visited that the Navy’s Optimized Fleet Response Plan aims to reduce deployment lengths to seven months starting in 2016. “If you say ‘I’ll believe it when I see it,’ that’s OK with me,” he said. In the interim, he said, eight- to 10-month deployments will continue.
To help sailors pass the time when they’re not working, the Vinson offers entertainment and distractions, such as movie nights in the hangar bay and Bingo. A successful shipwide effort to reach 100,000 “likes” on Vinson’s Facebook page has earned the crew permission from the ship’s captain to have what’s known as a steel beach picnic — essentially a barbecue on the flight deck.
The Vinson isn’t the only ship that has had to endure a lengthy deployment recently, although it’s on track for the longest in recent times.
Deployments of eight months or more have become increasingly commonplace in a Navy that was accustomed to a norm of about six months. Since October, both the Bush Carrier Strike Group and the Bataan Amphibious Ready Group have returned to the U.S. after nine-month deployments.
Under the Optimized Fleet Response Plan, the Navy intends to change the maintenance, training and deployment cycle for ships from 28 to 36 months, which will allow sailors to spend more time in their home ports.
For carrier strike groups, the plan is contingent on there being no change in the Navy’s current requirement of having a carrier in the Persian Gulf, one in the Western Pacific and one in transit.
However, the biggest obstacle to implementing any of those plans could be the budget.
“If we’re stuck on the previous year’s budget, we can’t put new initiatives in place,” Greenert said.
Officials blame gridlock in Congress for lengthy deployments in the first place — mainly sequestration and a series of continuing resolutions, a short-term legislative measure that keeps the federal government funded at current spending levels. Officials said sequestration and the government shutdown last year caused delays to shipboard maintenance and training that resulted in a domino effect of late deployments.
The Navy will be caught up with maintenance on its ships in roughly a year, Greenert told sailors aboard the Vinson.
Another challenge for the Navy is filling its 6,000 manning gaps at sea. While aboard the dock landing ship USS Comstock, Greenert told Stars and Stripes that the Navy has enough sailors, but not in the right place with the right skill sets. He attributed the gaps to the budgetary turmoil of recent years as well, which interrupted some education and training.
“Just having sailors isn’t going to help if they can’t operate the crane and well deck.”