Seven aircraft carriers – more than half the nation’s flattops – along with several dozen escort ships and about 40,000 sailors will be at sea starting this week for the first demonstration of the Navy’s emergency deployment plan.
Known as Summer Pulse 04, the exercise includes two carrier strike groups with San Diego ties: the Stennis flotilla, which deployed from North Island Naval Air Station last week on a regular deployment, and the Navy’s newest carrier, the Ronald Reagan, which is heading for its new home port in San Diego.
The seven carriers – virtually every aircraft carrier that can sail – will be at sea during all or part of the exercise, which ends in August. Besides the local warships, the George Washington, Kitty Hawk, Harry S. Truman, John F. Kennedy and Enterprise strike groups will participate. Most of the carriers will be escorted by four to six smaller ships.
“It’s pretty significant, but (the Navy) hasn’t done a good job of explaining how significant it is,” said John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, an independent think tank in Alexandria. Va.
It’s the first time since Operation Iraqi Freedom in March 2003 that so many of the Navy’s carriers have been at sea at once.
The exercise’s purpose is to demonstrate the Navy’s post-Iraq deployment scheme, called the Fleet Response Plan.
Central to the new operating plan is the Navy’s ability to “pulse” or “surge” its aircraft carriers to one or more trouble areas simultaneously. The plan says the Navy will deploy up to six carrier strike groups within 30 days of receiving orders and, within 90 days, two more carrier groups.
So, in three months, according to the plan, the Navy could have two-thirds of its carriers steaming near a war zone.
Not only will the Navy be coordinating the movement of several dozen ships around the world, but also keeping them supplied simultaneously with everything from aircraft spare parts to fuel to food.
Only two of the seven carriers, the Kennedy and Enterprise, will be sent to sea on short notice. The other warships were already on routine deployments or had planned training exercises for this summer.
The Enterprise leaves today from its Norfolk, Va., base, while the Kennedy will depart from its Florida port in a few weeks. The Truman left Tuesday from Norfolk for previously scheduled training.
While the demonstration, which strings together several already-planned exercises, may not be overly realistic, Pike said it will be useful because it will show the world that the Navy can deploy on short notice.
“They have to take it out for a spin,” he said.
While the Navy has 12 giant carriers, each capable of launching upward of 75 aircraft including fighters and bombers, normally only two or three have been deployed at the same time during peacetime. The rest were training for cruises or in port for maintenance.
Four carriers, including the San Diego-based Nimitz, are undergoing overhauls – lasting weeks, months and, in one case, three years – and are unavailable for a quick departure.
The Nimitz, which returned from deployment in November, is being repaired and upgraded at North Island Naval Air Station and is expected to return to service in August.