Behind the headlines

UK TV reports from the flight deck of USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76) underway in the Sea of Japan off the coast of North Korea on November 12 shone light on the presence of not one American supercarrier, but three. Sailing alongside the Reagan were the USS Nimitz (CVN 68), homeport Bremerton, Washington, and USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71), homeport San Diego, California. According to Commander, Naval Air Forces, Vice Admiral Mike Shoemaker, the three Carrier Strike Groups underway off the Korean peninsula are ready for contingencies, but at the cost to the readiness of naval aviation squadrons training at home. Speaking during a November 9 hearing before the House Armed Services readiness subcommittee, he said: “For example, to get [the aircraft carriers] Carl Vinson, Nimitz and Theodore Roosevelt ready to deploy in January, June and October of this year, and equip their embarked air wings with the required number of missioncapable jets, 94 strike fighters had to be transferred to and from the maintenance depots, or between F/A-18 squadrons on both coasts. This included pulling aircraft from the fleet replacement squadrons, where our focus should be on training new aviators.

“That strike fighter inventory management, or shell game, leaves non-deployed squadrons well below the number of jets required to keep aviators proficient and progressing toward their career qualification and milestones, with detrimental impacts to both retention and future experience levels.

“Additionally, to get the air wings ready, several hundred parts had to be cannibalised from other Super Hornets across the force, further decimating the readiness of squadrons and adding significantly and unnecessarily to the workload of our maintainers. From a manning perspective, to fill gaps in those deploying squadrons and the three carriers, over 300 sailors had to be temporarily reassigned from other squadrons, have their orders changed or get extended beyond their normal sea tour lengths, which hurts our sailors and their families and has cascading effects on enlisted retention across the force.”

In a written statement submitted to the subcommittee, Shoemaker said: “In order to properly man the required carrier air wings either on deployment or preparing to deploy at mandated levels of 95%, we do not have enough sailors left to fill the two remaining air wings in their maintenance phase. Due to these shortfalls, we have some squadrons only able to operate a single shift of maintenance [when they should be able to safely run two]. We’ve been forced to take risks in maintenance and production and, as a result, our ability to fix and produce up aircraft and therefore train aviators has suffered.”

In his testimony, Shoemaker said the actions needed to restore readiness in naval aviation forces include: consistent, predictable funding; buying back readiness lost from years of resource-constrained budgets; replenishing diminished stocks of spare parts on carriers and on bases; modernising the force to pace the threat; procuring new aircraft with high-end capabilities and lethality; and adding critical manpower needed to fight and to maintain those forces. Rick Burgess