The Navy is now required to have two aircraft carriers in Middle Eastern waters for nine months out of every year, a heavier constant commitment beyond the temporary surging of forces in the region over the past decade.
The Navy’s top officer said the requirement — referred to as 1.7 — was put in place last year by U.S. Central Command.
“The way that we characterize presence is if a carrier is in CENTCOM for one year — in other words, a 1.0 is one carrier in CENTCOM for a year,” Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Gary Roughead told Navy Times reporters and editors Thursday. “A 0.7 is a carrier in CENTCOM for 0.7 of a year, roughly nine months.
“And so the combatant commander has asked for a 1.7 presence, and we’re producing a 1.7 presence.”
Roughead added that he’s expecting that commitment to continue.
“I have structured our carrier schedule to be able to sustain the 1.7 in CENTCOM for the next couple of years,” he said.
Across the Navy, underway time has already reached a level not often seen this time of year, with more than half of the fleet’s ships and attack subs away from the pier, either on training or on deployment, according to statistics the Navy maintains on its official website. The Navy does not release numbers on ballistic-sub movements.
When asked why so many assets were underway, Roughead said it was a reflection of the world’s situation. “I think what we’re seeing is a period of truly significant change, at least within our recent history that is taking place in the world, particularly in the Middle East,” he said.
The heightened carrier presence was needed to support the surge in Afghanistan and for Operation New Dawn in Iraq, CENTCOM spokesman Army Lt. Col. Mike Lawhorn said. Lawhorn did not respond to questions by Feb. 25 about when the level had last been this high.
The stepped-up carrier presence is going to “put considerable strain” on the fleet, said Norman Polmar, a naval analyst and author of Ships and Aircraft of the U.S. Fleet.
The Carl Vinson and Enterprise carrier strike groups are in 5th Fleet now. The Ronald Reagan strike group is conducting final work-ups on the West Coast and could join the other groups in the region if needed.
Enterprise will make one more deployment in 2012 before the 49-year-old carrier is decommissioned, Navy officials have said. That, along with refueling time, will take the available carriers down to nine.
“We can barely sustain three forward-deployed carriers with nine” carriers, Polmar said. “We’ll have to meet the requirements with other ships: [amphibious assault ships] carrying Harriers, or more destroyers with Tomahawks, or more submarines with Tomahawks.”
The shift to more sea time is already visible in a comparison of the Navy’s statistics over four years. As of Feb. 24, 147 ships were underway. That includes five aircraft carriers, four amphibious assault ships and combatants, amphibs, and the ships that support them. That’s a far cry from this time two years ago, when only 113 ships were out to sea for both deployments and work-ups. That’s slightly less than the current number of deployed ships: 118.
Roughead said another busy mission area is ballistic-missile defense.
“Within the traditional force, the biggest demand that we’re having to deal with right now is ballistic-missile defense,” he said. “Whether it’s in the Western Pacific, the Arabian Gulf — we’ve now started to fill ships back into the Mediterranean again. And that is not going to change.”
Subs are also busy. Thirty-two boats, or nearly two out of three attack boats, were underway on Feb. 24. That’s much higher than the 26 that were out at this time last year and is approaching last year’s high of 38 boats, which occurred in early June. This spike is driven by training; on average, 13 boats were training in February.
Deployments for attack subs are closer to the average. There are 23 boats out on cruise. That’s well below the four-year high of 29 boats, or 54 percent of the force, set in November 2009.
Nathan Hughes, director of military analysis at STRATFOR, a global intelligence company, said “the U.S. Navy has a lot of ground to cover.”
And one of their most important assets to do it, he said, is the attack sub.
“They are an incredibly valuable asset that is in high demand in a lot of places,” Hughes said. He pointed out that three of the four cruise-missile submarines were all on deployment at once last year. Yet, he continued, “What we’ve got in the shipbuilding trajectory is a declining number of hulls.”
“So the problem is,” he said, “it’s going to get worse.”