The US Navy may take a little breather from its fight with the Islamic State (IS) this fall, according to a new report from Navy Times. Although not a done deal, current plans are for Carrier Strike Group 12 (CSG 12), which includes the USS Theodore Roosevelt and a host of supporting ships and aircraft, to be pulled back before a replacement strike group can get on station. That'll leave a month or two long gap in carrier coverage for the US Central Command, which is overseeing the fight against IS.
The Roosevelt's strike group, CSG 12, was deployed to the region in early April and is scheduled to be relieved by Carrier Strike Group 10 and the USS Harry S. Truman. This change in deployment plans shouldn't have a huge impact on the fight against IS in the near term — there are plenty of airbases in the region, as well as other Navy assets, such as the Essex Expeditionary Strike Group, which will be deploying to the region following its participation in the Culebra Koa 15 exercises near Hawaii. But it won't have the same capabilities.
The Navy, for its part, is downplaying the gap.
"The Navy does not maintain a continuous aircraft carrier presence in every combatant commander's area of responsibility," Navy spokesman Lieutenant Tim Hawkins told VICE News.
This is certainly true, but it is far from common for the Navy not to maintain a carrier presence in a region in which the US is actively prosecuting an air campaign. This isn't a warning sign per se, but it may be a sign of some pretty ominous groaning and creaking from the Navy's global force structure.
Aircraft carriers are the ultimate symbol of power projection, and they are unique platforms. American carriers don't actually carry very much in the way of weapons themselves, but rather exist to support three things: a flat surface, a steam catapult to launch aircraft from very short runways, and arresting cables to help them land. Using a catapult to launch aircraft and arresting gear to stop them after they land are together referred to as CATOBAR (Catapult-Assisted Takeoff, But Assisted Recovery). CATOBAR capability and a complement of about 75 aircraft make an aircraft carrier far closer to a mobile airbase sitting atop a small city than a warship.
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There are a number of intrinsic advantages to being able to bring your own airbase to a fight, which make carrier strike groups (CSG) — carriers and their associated escort of ships, aircraft, and submarines — in high demand with commanders responsible for various corners of the globe. Historically, the norm for deployment of a US Navy ship has been about six months.
The litany of post-9/11 military engagements, however, put a lot of strain on all parts of the US military. Ship deployments started stretching from six to eight to 10 or more months — plus, deployments increased in frequency. But the relative decline in military activity over the last few years hasn't translated into a break for the Navy.
"Fiscal Years 2011, 2012, and 2013 all involved an increased demand for carriers from the combatant commanders," Hawkins said. "We met that demand, but now need time to recover readiness."
It's like cramming for finals. You can burn the candle at both ends, pulling all-nighters, eating crummy food, and punishing your brain for a couple of days or even weeks. But at some point, it comes time to pay the price, and that's not just going to be a matter of sleeping in late one morning and eating a power bar. After enough all-nighters, you need to crash and crash hard.
Carriers live on a 36-month cycle. During that cycle, a carrier has (in theory) just one 7-month deployment. Figure it takes a month to commute from the US to the Persian Gulf. That means the seven months is actually five months (a month each coming and going). Thus, a carrier is in the Persian Gulf doing its thing for just five months once every three years. Therefore, keeping a carrier on station at all times in the Persian Gulf means you need to have at least seven carriers in various stages of the cycle.
Right now the US has 10 aircraft carriers able to act as proper mobile air bases. But that doesn't mean there are 10 aircraft carriers ready to go do their thing. Three are in the midst of years-long maintenance and upkeep work. Three others are undergoing less involved repair and maintenance — but could, in theory, be spooled up if the world went haywire. There is also plenty of training, certification, transit, and all kinds of other stuff that eats up the availability of the others.
The US has one carrier based in Japan, which counts as being "forward deployed" any time it's actually physically in contact with water (i.e., not in dry dock). That complicates calculations somewhat, but the long and short of it is that at any one time, globally speaking, the US can keep two or maybe three carriers out in the world.
That situation will be improved when the Navy's next carrier, the USS Gerald R. Ford, comes into service in the next year or so. And, should a full-blown war break out, the US could get at least five carriers into the fight. But the reality is that the gap in coverage during America's fight with IS isn't a surprise. It's simply a matter of the longstanding demand for carriers finally catching up with the fleet.
Follow Ryan Faith on Twitter: @Operation_Ryan
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