Aircraft carriers have long been symbols of America's ability to project power anywhere in the world, but carriers are spending less and less time deployed. Carrier deployment rates are the lowest in over two decades as the US military enters a time of renewed great power competition.
- Forced to pay the high cost of overuse of America's carrier force during the global war on terror, backlogs at public shipyards and extended maintenance periods are seeing US carriers spending more time in port or in the shop than deployed.
- The deployment rate for US carriers has dropped to a 25-year low, according to an analysis by US Naval Institute News.
- These shifts have caused the Navy to take a much more strategic approach to the way it thinks about carrier deployments, causing commanders to be more selective about where they send US carriers.
US carriers are spending less time deployed and more time in port or in the shop for maintenance as deployment rates drop to a 25-year low, a US Naval Institute News study revealed Wednesday.
This past summer, the better part of a month — 22 days — passed without a full carrier strike group underway anywhere in the world, reportedly marking the longest gap in more than half a century.
Only about 15% of the US Navy's aircraft carriers have been deployed in 2018. The Navy has not seen rates this low since 1992, just after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the conclusion of the Cold War. In the Middle East, where the US is battling Islamic insurgents, there has not been an aircraft carrier there since March, when the USS Theodore Roosevelt left the region.
Signs of potential trouble appeared a couple of years ago. The aircraft carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower left the Middle East in December 2016 after launching hundreds of airstrikes on the terrorist group ISIS in Iraq and Syria, Fox News reported. The Ike's return to port reportedly marked the first time since the end of World War II that the US did not have at least one aircraft carrier deployed, a situation that lasted for about a week.
Maintenance backlogs are hurting readiness
Maintenance overruns due to backlogs at public shipyards have cost the Navy dearly in terms of readiness, as these facilities fall farther and farther behind.
Between 2000 and 2016, America's carrier force lost 1,300 operational days, the equivalent of seven six-month deployments, USNI News noted, citing a 2017 Government Accountability Office report. Measuring from Fiscal Year 2015, the Navy lost roughly a year's worth of operational days for its aircraft carriers.
The USS Dwight D. Eisenhower has been in the shop for maintenance well beyond its expected February 2018 delivery date. The ship is expected to be ready for deployment in 2019, meaning it will have been in maintenance three times longer than anticipated, USNI News reported Monday.
Furthermore, more than half of the Navy's F/A-18E/F Super Hornets are not currently mission capable. The US Navy is pushing to integrate the F-35C Lightning II Joint Strike Fighters into the carrier air wings, but the Super Hornets remain a core element of existing carrier-based squadrons.
The Navy is paying the high price of overuse of the carrier force in support missions against extremists in the war on terror in the aftermath of 9/11, according to Navy officials.
China is boosting its maritime warfighting capabilities
Setbacks for the Navy come as US rivals, China in particular, strive to bolster their maritime warfighting capabilities.
China has one operational aircraft carrier — the Liaoning, a Soviet heavy aircraft-carrying cruiser refitted to serve as the flagship of the People's Liberation Army Navy and a training vessel for carrier operations. The country has a second carrier, one which was indigenously produced, undergoing sea trials and a third carrier on the way. China is expected to have at least four operational carriers within the next decade, with each carrier more advanced and more capable than its predecessor.
Russia, on the other hand, is upgrading its Admiral Kuznetsov carrier, although the vessel, like its Chinese sister ships, is expected to still trail behind the more advanced capabilities of US carriers, which have been patrolling the high seas for decades.
The Navy's new deployment strategy
Faced with deployment drawbacks, the US Navy has adopted a new strategy, one that breaks with nearly two decades of tradition. Focusing on operational unpredictability, a potential advantage in high-end combat with peer competitors, the Navy is embracing dynamic force employment, which is characterized by short deployments in multiple areas of importance rather than prolonged operations in a single hot spot.
While the Navy has emphasized the strategic advantages of the new deployment plan, experts suggest that maintenance delays and other issues have forced the Navy to be more selective about where it sends its carrier strike groups.
The Navy is attempting to reset the force to prepare for conflict with Russia and China, as well as maintain support for US allies and partners. As for whether or not the reduced deployment rates send a message to rivals about America's ability to wage war in this time of renewed great power competition, that is up for debate.