Navy Carrier Group Sets Sail Without Its Carrier As Maintenance Troubles Plague Force
USS Truman is still sidelined after an electrical system malfunction and no other carriers on the East Coast are available to take its place.
The Ticonderoga class cruiser and three Arleigh Burke class destroyers assigned to the Truman Carrier Strike Group have left ports along the East Coast of the United States for a scheduled deployment, but without two key components, the Nimitz class carrier USS Harry S. Truman or its air wing.
The flattop has been sidelined since experiencing an electrical malfunction last month and the U.S. Navy does not know yet when, or if, it will be able to join its escorts. The predicament has also added to an existing shortage of deployable carriers on the East Coast, which could limit the service's ability to respond to a crisis.
USNI News was first to report the deployment on Sept. 12, 2019. The carrier-less Surface Action Group (SAG) presently consists of the Ticonderoga class cruiser USS Normandy and the Arleigh Burke class destroyers USS Farragut, USS Forrest Sherman, and USS Lassen. The leadership of Destroyer Squadron 28 (DESRON 28) is in charge of the force and the SAG includes 15 additional personnel, including maintenance personnel and other technicians, to provide support that usually comes from a carrier's crew during deployments. MH-60R Sea Hawk helicopters from Helicopter Maritime Squadron 72 (HSM-72) are also assigned to the ships.
"This group is going to deploy more than likely to multiple regions, and they are going with a much higher-end capability, with helicopter detachments with significant anti-submarine warfare capability, significant air defense capability, as well as strike warfare capability," U.S. Navy Vice Admiral Andrew Lewis, commander of U.S. 2nd Fleet, told USNI News. "So really a full-up group, minus the carrier and the air wing. But a full-up, very capable group is going off to do the nation’s bidding in this great power competition."
Lewis did not say where the ships would be deploying. The last outing for the complete Truman Carrier Group, which wrapped up in December 2018, took the ships to the U.S. 2nd and 6th Fleet Areas of Responsibility, which include a portion of the North Atlantic and waters around Europe and much of Africa, respectively. The deployment could also take some of the ships into various strategic bodies of water in the Middle East, which is under the purview of U.S. 5th Fleet.
“The situation with Truman frankly is unfortunate; obviously we’re working really hard to fix it and we will fix it, but it’s unfortunate – nobody wanted that to happen certainly," Lewis added. "But we’re going to make this into what it really is, which is, we’ve still got a massive capability that’s going forward on time, and that will be even more amplified when Truman comes out."
When, or even if, Truman will be able to join her escorts on the deployment is unclear. Lewis declined to give USNI News a projected date for when the carrier's required maintenance would be completed.
“USS Harry S. Truman (CVN 75) has experienced an electrical malfunction within the ship’s electrical distribution system requiring analysis and repair," Captain Scott Miller, a spokesperson for U.S. Fleet Forces Command, had told USNI News back on Aug. 30, 2019. "The ship is working closely with technicians from Norfolk Naval Shipyard to determine the cause and scope of the issue. The safety of the ship’s crew and reactor plants are not affected."
The carrier, together with its air wing and escorts, had completed a Composite Training Unit Exercise (COMPTUEX) in July 2019, ahead of the deployment. The malfunction appears to have occurred sometime after that, and while details remain limited, the incident was serious and complex enough that repairs are only beginning now and personnel are still continuing to assess the full extent of the damage, according to USNI News.
Truman had already been at the center of a still curious controversy earlier this year, which saw plans to retire the carrier earlier than expected appear and then quickly get reversed in the face of a massive backlash from Congress, a chain of events the War Zone analyzed in-depth at the time.
Vice Admiral Lewis downplayed the situation, pointing to the ability of the SAG to perform the bulk of the core missions the full Carrier Strike Group was slated to conduct during the deployment. "There’s no doubt the carrier and the embarked air wing brings amazing strike capability and deterrent capability wherever it goes, but short of that, this is really going a long way towards the kind of capability we need to have at sea that can go across all mission sets," he explained.
It's certainly true that anti-submarine warfare, something that the SAG is very capable of performing, is high on the list of priority mission sets for any forces deploying to 2nd Fleet. The Navy highlighted increased submarine activity in the Atlantic, primarily from Russia, as one of the primary reasons for reactivating this command in 2018.
Anti-submarine warfare, together with air and missile defense, are also important missions in and around Europe, too, including in the Norwegian Sea and the Mediterranean Sea. All of the ships in the SAG have significant surface warfare capabilities, as well, and will be carrying Tomahawk land attack cruise missiles to prosecute targets on land, if necessary.
Navy surface warships also often provide intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities off the coasts of known hotspots, such as Libya and various countries in the Middle East, both with onboard sensors and their MH-60R helicopters and any drones they might have embarked. MH-60Rs have also been called upon to provide airlift and other support to American forces, including special operations forces, that are conducting counter-terrorism and other limited operations ashore, in the past.
At the same time, the Navy cannot know for sure what contingencies the SAG may be called upon to respond to during the course of its deployment. The service's long-standing policy of regular carrier deployments around the world is specifically intended to help ensure there is a flattop nearby during any potential crisis.
"Where are the carriers?" is a common refrain, inside the U.S. government and out, when geopolitcial tensions around the world threaten to turn ugly. No other ships in the Navy's fleets can support the same kind of sustained forward-deployed air combat operations or move those capabilities quickly into a particular region where established facilities on land may be lacking or otherwise unavailable. The ships in the SAG have a much more limited capacity to conduct protracted operations, especially strikes on land, with just their guns and missiles, especially given how difficult it is to reload their Mk 41 Vertical Launch System arrays at sea. Beyond that, carriers also have less tangible, but no less real psychological capabilities and the United States regularly uses them as a way to "show the flag" in order to try to deter potential opponents.
"There’s no question that not having the aircraft carrier, it does detract from the symbolism and the deterrent effect, no question," Vice Admiral Lewis himself acknowledged. "The aircraft carrier is a behemoth beast with an amazing capability that, it shows up off your shores, and if you’re not our friend you become our friend quickly if you know what’s good for you."
Of course, this is not the first time the Navy had formed a surface action group or that a carrier has missed its deployment, either. In 2013, the first-in-class USS Nimitz, homeported on the West Coast, found itself in a similar situation and joined its escorts months after they had deployed. Two years later, the East Coast-based USS Dwight D. Eisenhower couldn't make its deployment due to extended maintenance issues, so Truman went instead. In recent years, the Navy has been working on new deployment methods to both be better prepared for unforeseen contingencies and to make its operations less predictable for potential opponents, concepts that the War Zone has explored in the past.
The Navy has also been exploring concepts of operation based around smaller surface action groups. The service has said that Truman having to stay behind will give it a valuable opportunity to see how the remaining SAG performs in a variety of capacities.
However, this particular situation underscores a number of ongoing issues that continue to impact the Navy's ability to operate in a truly flexible and responsive manner. At present, Eisenhower is the only carrier available for deployment on the East Coast in any way. Unfortunately, it just recently finished a major 18-month maintenance period and is still in the process of re-certifying its crew.
The USS Abraham Lincoln is already on deployment in the Middle East, having deployed there earlier this year ahead of schedule ostensibly to respond to lingering concerns about potential attacks from Iran or Iranian-backed proxies. USS George Washington is in the midst of an extensive refueling and complex overhaul, or RCOH, which began in 2017 and is scheduled to get finished in 2021. USS John C. Stennis was only recently reassigned to Naval Station Norfolk in order to get it prepared for its RCOH, slated to begin in 2021.
Lastly, USS George H.W. Bush began a scheduled, but more limited maintenance availability in February, which was supposed to take 10 months. However, due to massive maintenance backlogs, the Navy now expects the process will take more than two years to complete.
Completing maintenance on schedule has been a major issue across the Navy's surface and submarine fleets in recent years, with increasingly cascading effects on readiness as vessels sit idle and unavailable for deployment waiting their turn at a limited number of shipyards.
You can read more in detail about the various factors that are causing trouble for the Navy's carrier fleets in this recent War Zone feature. How this reality might impact Truman's ongoing maintenance at present, or how that carrier's unforeseen maintenance period may impact scheduled repairs to other ships, remains to be seen. Truman is scheduled to undergo its own RCOH starting in 2024.
"They’re in the process of repairs and identifying all the root causes that they can at this point. There's still some unknowns," Vice Admiral Lewis told USNI News. "We fully intend to deploy the aircraft carrier at a later time."
In the meantime, for better or worse, Truman's escorts are heading out without her.
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