Most U.S. aircraft carriers sit idle in Virginia ports

By: - November 18, 2019 12:01 am

The USS Harry S. Truman, which has its home port in Norfolk, is pictured anchored in The Solent on October 8, 2018 near Portsmouth, England. The nuclear powered aircraft carrier is named after the 33rd president of the United States and has a crew of more than 5,000. The Nimitz-class ship, launched in 1998, carries more than 70 helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft. (Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON — More than half of the nation’s aircraft carriers are not currently ready for deployment, as the massive ships sit off the Virginia coastline in various states of repair or testing.

The U.S. Navy has 11 aircraft carriers, more than any other nation. Six of them are currently docked along the Virginia coast and only one is ready to deploy. Another is undergoing maintenance on the Pacific coast. The hulking warships serve as mobile airbases at sea and can allow U.S. forces to fly into areas swiftly, without a complicated process of getting permission to set up on land in neighboring nations.

The carriers are supposed to be on a three-year schedule that rotates deployment, scheduled maintenance and repair, so that some carriers are always in strategic places at sea and others are ready for deployment, if a fast response is needed for a global problem.

Democratic Rep. Elaine Luria, a Navy veteran who represents Virginia’s 2nd congressional district in Hampton Roads, sees some of the carriers in base when she checks in on the Norfolk waterfront in her district. Luria is concerned the Navy is not keeping up with its schedule for the aircraft carriers.

“We have not been able to generate the deployable forces one would expect,” Luria said in an interview Friday with the Mercury. “You have 11 carriers, six of them are on the East Coast and only one can deploy and it is deploying late, I don’t think that is generating good deployment capability or surge capability to respond where we need to respond around the world.”

Luria said she is working with Navy officials in an oversight role to make sure the aircraft carriers stay on schedule. She sparred with top Navy leadership at a recent hearing on the issue in the House Armed Services Committee.

At that hearing, Vice Admiral Thomas Moore, commander of the Naval Sea Systems Command, said the current situation with aircraft carriers is “not where we desire to be,” but is all part of the maintenance cycle and would be rectified quickly. He said three more carriers would be available to deploy in early 2020. He also said that nine of the last 10 carriers have “delivered on time.”

When asked by Luria if the Navy has “all the resources you need to maintain our carrier,” Moore responded: “We do.”

“When Admiral Moore responded that he needed nothing, I was pretty shocked. I almost fell out of my chair,” Luria said in an interview weeks after the hearing. “That is the first time I have heard anyone say they don’t need anything else.”

Meanwhile, one aircraft carrier, the USS Abraham Lincoln, had its deployment in the Middle East extended because no ship has been available to relieve it. The USS Harry Truman was supposed to take its place, but an electrical issue sidelined the ship.

The Navy announced Nov. 12 that the repairs to the Truman are complete. US Fleet Forces Command said that “every effort is being made to make the carrier, air wing, and sailors operationally ready to deploy.”

Some military analysts say the current backlog of aircraft carrier repairs is a normal blip in the process, made more complicated by the unexpected problem on the Truman and delays on new ships.

“It is normal for ships to be going through repair and it is nothing to be particularly concerned about, but there have been some unusual cases lately,” said Brad Martin, a retired U.S. Navy captain who is now a senior policy researcher for the RAND Corporation. “It is something that needs to be addressed, but it is a part of the overhead of keeping ships in service.”

Long delays for a new carrier

Another outlier in the Navy’s work on aircraft carriers has been continued delay on the first new aircraft carrier designed in more than 40 years, the USS Gerald Ford.

The $13 billion Ford was supposed to be ready to deploy in 2018 but has been at Newport News Shipbuilding, where the Navy has been trying to get all the new systems on the ship working. It is years behind schedule and billions over budget. A Republican senator said the Navy’s mismanagement of the project “ought to be criminal,” the Navy Times reported.

The USS Gerald R. Ford is shown underway on its own power for the first time while leaving Newport News Shipbuilding, Newport News on April 8, 2017. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Ridge Leoni, via Wikipedia.)

The first-in-class Ford has been plagued with problems as the Navy has tried to make new technology work on the ship. The crucial element currently under review is that some of the ship’s weapons elevators are not operational all the way down to the level of the ship where ordnance is stored.

Navy officials have not released a timeline for the ship, but Luria estimates it may not be ready for deployment for years.

“That carrier has not been able to be deployable for an extended period of time, potentially six years from when it should have been deployed,” said Luria. “We need to look in the future to make sure when we build in new technology we are not taking on a significant risk.”

The Ford is in its next phase of post-delivery test and trials, according to a Navy spokesperson. Once the “advanced weapons elevator” work is complete, it will complete thousands of aircraft carrier qualification flights and combat trials.

“The real problem with Ford is the effort to try to do a lot of new things in one ship,” said Martin, the RAND analyst. Some of the plans for new technology on the ship date back to Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s plans during the George W. Bush administration. “When you try to make a leap forward like that, you are very likely going to have a lot of challenges.

Status of East Coast aircraft carriers:

  • USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN 69) – has completed the basic phase of the planned “Optimized Fleet Response Plan” and is back in training to be deployable, according to the Navy

  • USS George Washington (CVN 73) – in the maintenance phase, undergoing nuclear refueling and a complex overhaul at Newport News Shipbuilding

  • USS John C. Stennis (CVN 74) – supporting operations off the East Coast, slated for refueling and complex overhaul

  • USS Harry S. Truman (CVN 75) – in “sustainment phase,” being made ready to deploy

  • USS George H.W. Bush (CVN 77) – in maintenance

  • USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN 72) – in extended deployment to the Middle East. Deployment was extended because relief carriers are still undergoing repairs

  • USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN 78) – a new ship, undergoing years of testing

  • Pre-Commissioning Unit John F. Kennedy (CVN 79) – will be the Navy’s newest aircraft carrier. It is currently under construction at Newport News Shipbuilding and will be christened next month

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Allison Winter
Allison Winter

Allison Winter is a Washington D.C. correspondent for States Newsroom, a network of state-based nonprofit news outlets that includes the Virginia Mercury.