USS Abraham Lincoln Return Marks End of Second High-Tempo Carrier Deployment in WESTPAC

ABOARD AIRCRAFT CARRIER USS ABRAHAM LINCOLN, OFF THE COAST OF HAWAII – When aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN-72) pulls into Naval Air Station North Island on Thursday, it will cap off a busy deployment to the Western Pacific. Lincoln’s deployment saw the carrier largely operating in U.S. 7th Fleet, where it had the chance […]

An F-35C Lightning II, assigned to the ‘Black Knights’ of Marine Fighter Attack Squadron (VMFA) 314, flies over USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN-72) on July 30, 2022. US Navy Photo

ABOARD AIRCRAFT CARRIER USS ABRAHAM LINCOLN, OFF THE COAST OF HAWAII – When aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN-72) pulls into Naval Air Station North Island on Thursday, it will cap off a busy deployment to the Western Pacific.

Lincoln’s deployment saw the carrier largely operating in U.S. 7th Fleet, where it had the chance to drill with both Japan and the Philippines ahead of the biennial Rim of the Pacific 2022 exercise in Hawaii.

It’s the second consecutive high operational tempo aircraft carrier deployment to WESTPAC, as the U.S. Navy increases its emphasis on operating in the region to counter China.

“Our activities into the South China Sea as well as East China Sea were important to send a signal to China, North Korea, Russia of our commitment to the region, as well as our willingness to fly, sail, or operate wherever international law allows,” Rear Adm. J.T. Anderson, the commander of Carrier Strike Group Three, told USNI news in a recent interview.

While the carrier participated in a wide range of exercises, the deployment also marked the first U.S. Marine Corps F-35C Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter squadron deployment on an aircraft carrier and the second for the CMV-22B Osprey.

Capt. Amy Bauernschmidt, Lincoln’s commanding officer, told USNI News that the crew applied many of the takeaways from USS Carl Vinson‘s (CVN-70) recent deployment in the region to Lincoln’s time in WESTPAC.

“We took onboard a lot of their lessons about … where to base, and how to operate. We did build upon those lessons and learned a few of our own. We were fairly fortunate in that while we covered a vast amount of space in 7th fleet – some days it was a long flight for the CODSPREY – but we were able to remain mostly based out of one location for most of the deployment, which at least facilitated the flow of people and parts to one location,” Bauernschmidt said.

Dynamic Environment

USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN-72) sails in formation during Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) 2022, July 28, 2022. US Navy Photo

The early days of Lincoln’s deployment saw the carrier operating in the South China Sea – including amid People’s Liberation Army Air Force incursions into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone – and the Philippine Sea.

Anderson echoed remarks Vinson crew members made to USNI News during a trip earlier this year to Vinson at the tail-end of its deployment, in which sailors described a more dynamic environment in U.S. 7th Fleet compared to deployments over the last two decades in U.S. Central Command.

“We spent a lot of time maneuvering around not only the Philippine Sea, but also in the South China Sea and well as the East China Sea. And the dynamic maneuver wasn’t just exclusively maneuvering around to avoid certain things, but it was also that that’s our best way of being able to compete in that space, as well as provide a strong presence throughout the region,” Anderson said.
“If we were to just simply maintain our location in one general location, I don’t think we were necessarily doing our job, right, in terms of providing a sustained presence throughout the region.”

Bauernschmidt acknowledged the difference between operations in U.S. 7th Fleet versus U.S. 5th Fleet.

“I would say a vast majority of folks that have deployed in the Navy got very comfortable and used to 5th Fleet operations and this is obviously not 5th Fleet operations. And so it is a much larger area than we would typically operate in and … it’s not just about one entity. It’s about China, Russia, [North] Korea. It’s about multiple different actors and being able to respond to any of those,” she told USNI News.
“Because it’s a large area of operations, being able to strategically place yourself to answer whatever mission we’re called upon is very important.”

Because of the size of the Indo-Pacific region, Bauernschmidt said she had to change how she thought about the carrier’s operations.

“I personally also had to think a little differently about each and every night what the sea space looked like, what we were being tasked with, what we were being asked to accomplish, or to just think ahead about where we may want to position ourselves in the event we were tasked with a different mission,” she said.
“Because unlike operations in the 5th Fleet that you can get where you needed to be in a half a day, in a fairly short amount of time, we have a lot more sea space to cover. And so being able to think strategically, position yourself where you need to be, understand the constraints and the restraints of ourselves, our aircraft, and other forces was important.” 

Lessons Learned from Vinson

An F/A-18E Super Hornet, assigned to the ‘Tophatters’ of Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 14, prepares to make an arrested landing on the flight deck of the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN-72) on June 3, 2022. US Navy Photo

Lincoln’s deployment to the western Pacific followed a similar one last year by Vinson, which sent the first U.S. Navy F-35C squadron and CMV-22B Osprey squadron out to sea. Lincoln deployed with 10 Marine Corps F-35Cs that make up the “Black Knights” of Marine Strike Fighter Squadron (VMFA) 314 out of Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, Calif.

Ahead of the deployment, Bauernschmidt said Lincoln had the authority to install a double-decker mezzanine at the back of the hangar bay.

“What that allowed us to do was get some of the material that was normally in hangar bay 3 up into that mezzanine,” she said.

“We also took a good look at all of the support equipment and really tried to optimize where maybe we had duplicates, or we had the ability to truly ensure that the support equipment for the aircraft that we had was the right quantity, the right number, and the right ability,” Bauernschmidt added.

Instead of basing out of the U.S. Air Force’s Kadena Air Base on Okinawa, like Vinson’s CMV-22B Osprey detachment, Lincoln’s detachment was based out of Marine Corps Air Station Futenma. This helped with parts and maintenance because the U.S. Marine Corps’s MV-22B Ospreys were also at Futenma.

“It is always helpful when there’s extra bodies, extra parts. So there was a little bit easier flow because there was already an established flow for most of their parts,” Bauernschmidt said.

Cmdr. Daniel Hutton, an aircraft intermediate maintenance department officer aboard Lincoln, said the carrier’s crew used takeaways from the Vinson deployment to tweak what equipment Lincoln brought. This allowed the crew to make more space in the hangar bay and be more strategic with what equipment it needed or did not need. As a result, the crew placed more gear in hangar bay 3, which made for more space in the middle of the carrier and in the forward part of the ship.

“Being the second air wing ship team to go out to sea with that type of aircraft, there’s a constant learning process that takes place between the ship, the supporting entities ashore, and then being able to adjust and take into account what things break,” Hutton told USNI News.

Hutton said they will continue to make tweaks depending on what happens throughout the deployment.

Since Vinson‘s crew had the chance to test out the deck density aboard the carrier with the Navy F-35Cs and the CMV-22B Ospreys, Lincoln could take those lessons and alter what they brought to sea. As a result, Bauernschmidt said Lincoln decreased its deck density.

An CMV-22B Osprey, carrying the U.S. ambassador to Japan, Hon. Rahm Emanuel, Japan Minister of Foreign Affairs, Hayashi Yoshima, Commander, U.S. 7th Fleet, Vice Adm. Karl Thomas, Commander, Navy Region Japan/Commander, U.S. Naval Forces Japan Rear Adm. Carl Lahti, lands on Naval Air Facility (NAF) Atsugi following an official visit, to the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN-72) on April 23, 2022. US Navy Photo

“Because we had a lot of Vinson’s lessons learned, we were able to sit down and take a very thoughtful look at how we were utilizing space in the hangar bay to try to ensure that we didn’t have anything we didn’t need, but we did have everything that we were going to need so that it opened up extra space for aircraft and a little bit of extra maneuver space to maneuver them around,” she said.
“And we got our deck density down quite a bit from where Vinson was and into a pretty good place. And then we were still able to provide a little bit more feedback for follow on carriers so that they can learn from what we kind of figured out as well.”

Bauernschmidt said she also took advice from Vinson‘s commanding officer about how to perform replenishments at sea to maximize the carrier’s ability to respond to missions if necessary.

“He talked about some of the pluses and minuses with different locations – impacts of sea space, or how flight operations worked. We try to ensure that we were postured very well to be able to react to anything that we needed to react, like we do every day,” Bauernschmidt said. “But when you’re alongside another ship, we were very careful about planning it so that we were – several times we launched aircraft while we were alongside replenishing to be able to respond as necessary and then we were able to continue about the mission.”

F-35C Operations

Aviation Boatswain’s Mate (Equipment) 2nd Class Justin Mancha, from San Antonio, signals an F-35C Lightning II, assigned to the ‘Black Knights’ of Marine Fighter Attack Squadron (VMFA) 314, as it takes off from the flight deck of the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN 72) during Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) 2022 on July 14, 2022. US Navy Photo

After employing the Navy and Marine Corps F-35Cs at sea, officials aboard both Vinson and Lincoln say they want more of the aircraft operating within a carrier strike group.

Anderson, when asked why he would like more F-35Cs, pointed to the fighter’s sensing capabilities. Both Bauernschmidt and Anderson described “seamless” integration of the F-35Cs into the carrier air wing.

“It’s the tremendous capability that the aircraft provides from an ability to generate information, the sensors that it has onboard, as well as its ability to distribute that information, not just to other aircraft but to the rest of the force,” Anderson told USNI News.
“It’s a testament to the platform and the folks that fly it too that it can integrate so well in with the rest of the air wing. We don’t have to do unique things with the schedule, the cycle lengths, etc. in order to accommodate it.”

Despite concerns ahead of the first F-35C deployments, Bauernschmidt said at-sea operations disproved some of those worries.

“I think like any new platform that’s introduced, there’s a little bit of angst about how it’s going to go. And I think what ended up happening when we got them was the realization that it was again a fairly seamless integration, regardless of whether it was Marine Corps or Navy,” she said.
“But I think in terms of the noise and some of the things they were concerned about from whether it was a deck density standpoint, or parts availability, or maintenance that they were going to be required to do, I think there were a lot more concerns that were fairly unfounded once, you know, now that we’ve gotten through this deployment [and] we’ve been able to see and operate with them.”

Marine MV-22B Osprey Crashes in Southern California, Status of Crew Unknown

An MV-22B Osprey tiltrotor aircraft assigned to 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing went down Wednesday afternoon in the Southern California desert, military officials said. Military and civilian crash and fire personnel from the local area are on the scene of the crash and the status of the crew is unknown. An Osprey usually carries a crew […]

U.S. Marine Corps MV-22 Osprey with Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron 362 (reinforced), 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit takes off during an Amphibious Raid course at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, California, May 17, 2022. US Marine Corps Photo

An MV-22B Osprey tiltrotor aircraft assigned to 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing went down Wednesday afternoon in the Southern California desert, military officials said.

Military and civilian crash and fire personnel from the local area are on the scene of the crash and the status of the crew is unknown. An Osprey usually carries a crew of three to five people, depending on the mission.

“We can confirm that an aircraft belonging to 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing crashed near Glamis, CA. Military and civilian first responders are on site,” wing officials said in a statement.

Flight trackers showed a Navy CMV-22B was conducting search and rescue operations over the crash site while local television showed Navy MH-60 Sea Hawks in the area.

The crash happened about 12:25 p.m. West Coast time, 1st Lt. Duane Kampa, a 3rd MAW spokesman, said by phone from Miramar Marine Corps Air Station in San Diego, Calif. The area around Glamis, northeast of El Centro and northwest of Yuma, Ariz., is a sandy, desert area that’s popular with offroaders.

A regional aerial reporter, Malik Earnest, had posted on Twitter that “preliminary reports” indicate the Osprey had nuclear material” aboard, and an online Broadcastify.com notice said an alert was issued for “radioactive material” on the aircraft was loaded.

But military officials those reports of nuclear or radioactive materials were in error. “Contrary to initial reports, there was no nuclear material on board the aircraft. More information will be made available as we receive it,” wing officials said in the statement.

“There were some initial reporting that there were nuclear materials was on the aircraft, but that’s not true,” Kampa said.

In March, an MV-22B crashed in Norway during a training exercise killing four.

Top Stories 2021: U.S. Navy Operations

This post is part of a series looking back at the top naval stories from 2021. Naval operations this year once again saw the United States Navy balancing presence in multiple theaters, as the U.S. withdrew from the war in Afghanistan and continued emphasizing the Indo-Pacific region. In addition to a U.S. presence in the […]

Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Dewey (DDG-105), front, and Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson (CVN-70) transit the Pacific Ocean on June 13, 2021. US Navy Photo

This post is part of a series looking back at the top naval stories from 2021.

Naval operations this year once again saw the United States Navy balancing presence in multiple theaters, as the U.S. withdrew from the war in Afghanistan and continued emphasizing the Indo-Pacific region.

In addition to a U.S. presence in the Indo-Pacific, 2021 saw several U.S. allies send ships to operate in the region, giving American ships and crew the opportunity to drill with both European and regional allies.

While the U.S. Navy kept a steady warship presence in the Middle East, this year was the first in several in which the Navy did not have an aircraft carrier consistently operating in U.S. Central Command.

This year also saw the Navy’s first deployment of its new CMV-22B Osprey carrier onboard delivery aircraft and the F-35C Lightning II Joint Strike Fighters.

Meanwhile, the introduction of the COVID-19 vaccine helped the service ease some of its pre-deployment restrictions on sailors and resume some normal aspects of deployments like port calls.

The Navy also continued to grapple with the fire that led it to scrap the former USS Bonhomme Richard (LHD-6) and its pressing maintenance backlogs at the public shipyards.

Indo-Pacific

Sailors man the rails aboard the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71) as the ship passes by the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN-70) while returning to Naval Air Station North Island, Calif., on May 25, 2021. US Navy Photo

The Navy kept a largely consistent carrier presence in the Indo-Pacific this year, as the new Biden administration sought to continue the prior administration’s emphasis on the region and China.

In its second deployment within a year, USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71) spent the first several months of 2021 operating throughout U.S. Indo-Pacific Command. The aircraft carrier deployed at the end of last year with two of the escorts from its first deployment earlier in 2020.

 

The Theodore Roosevelt Carrier Strike Group transits in formation with the Makin Island Amphibious Ready Group in the South China Sea on April 9, 2021. US Navy Photo

In April, the TR Carrier Strike Group and the Makin Island Amphibious Ready Group drilled in the South China Sea amid heightened tensions between China and the Philippines. At the time, Chinese maritime militia vessels gathered near the Whitsun Reef off the coast of the Philippines, an incident the Pentagon voiced concern over at the time. Several months later, in June, the Philippines for the second time paused its plans to terminate part of the Mutual Defense Treaty with the United States.

Meanwhile, U.S. Navy ships performed transits through the Taiwan Strait at nearly monthly intervals for much of 2021, including multiple transits that received protests from Beijing. The repeated transits came amid increased concern in the U.S. over tensions between Taiwan and China, and as China on multiple occasions flew jets into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone (ADIZ).

The service also performed several freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea this year.

Aviation Boatswain’s Mate (Equipment) Airman Luis Correia, from Boston, pushes back an arresting gear cable after an EA-18G Growler attached to the ‘Shadowhawks’ of Electronic Attack Squadron (VAQ) 141 lands on the flight deck of the U.S. Navy’s only forward-deployed aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan (CVN-76) on May 21, 2021. US Navy Photo

USS Ronald Reagan (CVN-76), the Navy’s Japan-based forward-deployed carrier, operated in the Indo-Pacific for part of its 2021 spring patrol before getting diverted to the Middle East.

Since August, the Carl Vinson Carrier Strike Group has been operating throughout Indo-Pacific Command, drilling with multiple countries’ navies, including the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force, the United Kingdom’s Carrier Strike Group 21, the Germany Navy and the Royal Australian Navy.

The Vinson CSG deployment features the Navy’s most sophisticated air wing yet, with the first deployment of a combined air wing with the fifth-generation F-35C and the new CMV-22B Osprey.

Middle East

Sailor directs an aircraft on the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz (CVN-68) Jan. 24, 2021. US Navy Photo

This year began with the Nimitz Carrier Strike Group operating in the North Arabian Sea for the end of its deployment. It was the second year in a row that started off with heightened tensions between the U.S. and Iran. After originally calling for the carrier to come home, the Pentagon – citing threats from Iran on the anniversary of the killing of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force Commander Qasem Suleimani – kept USS Nimitz (CVN-68) operating in the region through the rest of January.

Shortly after Nimitz’s departure from the region at the end of January, the Makin Island Amphibious Ready Group moved into the Persian Gulf and operated in Central Command until another aircraft carrier arrived on station in early April.

After operating in the Mediterranean, the Dwight D. Eisenhower Carrier Strike Group eventually took its place in U.S. Central Command. It was the second deployment within a year for Eisenhower and one of its escorts – USS Vella Gulf (CG-72) – and one of two so-called double-pump deployments for the Navy this year, showing the continued strain on the carrier force.

Sailors from USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN-69) hold US state flags on the bow of the carrier as it approaches Naval Station Norfolk, Va., on July 18, 2021. USNI News Photo

Eisenhower left for its deployment in February, allowing the Navy to offer its sailors the COVID-19 vaccine before they left Norfolk, Va. Around the same time, the service announced new guidance for sailors preparing for deployment to account for the availability of the vaccine. At the time, the Navy had been enforcing bubble methods and restriction-of-movement (ROM) sequesters to prevent sailors gearing up to deploy from catching COVID-19. But the February guidance allowed sailors who were fully vaccinated to remain at their own homes, instead of a hotel room or other housing, for the two weeks leading up to deployment.

IKE remained on station in the Middle East through the end of June, when the Ronald Reagan Carrier Strike Group entered Central Command to relieve IKE and support the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. It was the first time the Navy’s Japan-based carrier operated in the Middle East since the former USS Kitty Hawk (CV-63) supported the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Over the summer, the Iwo Jima Amphibious Ready Group also operated in Central Command to support the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.

An MV-22B Osprey, attached to Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron (VMM) 162 (Reinforced), takes off from the flight deck of the Wasp-class amphibious assault ship USS Iwo Jima (LHD-7) during routine flight operations on Aug. 25, 2021. US Navy Photo

After the withdrawal concluded at the end of August, Reagan left Central Command in mid-September, having operating in the Middle East for almost three months. Iwo Jima also left the region in September.

Since mid-September, the Essex Amphibious Ready Group has been operating in the Middle East.

Atlantic

USS The Sullivans (DDG-68) has detached from the strike group and began her transit home on October 19, 2021. Royal Navy Photo

This year saw the U.K.’s maiden deployment for its new aircraft carrier, HMS Queen Elizabeth (R08), which deployed with a multinational carrier strike group that included American destroyer USS The Sullivans (DDG-68) and Dutch frigate HNLMS Evertsen (F805).

In May, the U.K.’s CSG 21 operated in the North Atlantic with the Iwo Jima ARG for an exercise that combined the U.K.’s Strike Warrior drills with the United States’ Ragnar Viking drills that included multiple NATO allies.

That same month, NATO allies participated in the first phase of Steadfast Defender 2021, which featured 11 NATO countries drilling in the Atlantic.

The Navy this year also performed its Large Scale Exercise 2021, a massive drill that spanned both the Atlantic and Pacific theaters to test out the service’s operating concepts across staffs and time zones around the globe. During the two-week exercise, USS Kearsarge (LHD-3) performed a fueling-at-sea test in the Atlantic with USS Gonzalez (DDG-66).

Maintenance

Screenshot of YouTube video from May 31, 2021 of the hull of Bonhomme Richard arriving in the Port of Brownsville, Texas.

The Navy continued to deal with the fallout from the July 2020 fire aboard the former USS Bonhomme Richard (LHD-6), which was decommissioned earlier this year and sold for scraps to Texas-based International Shipbreaking LTD.

When the amphibious warship caught fire last July, it was was nearing the end of a maintenance period at Naval Base San Diego, where it was receiving upgrades to accommodate the F-35B Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter.

The Navy in July charged Seaman Apprentice Ryan Mays, who was working aboard Bonhomme Richard at the time, with aggravated arson and hazarding a vessel. The sailor’s Article 32 hearing took place last week and U.S. 3rd Fleet commander Adm. Stephen Koehler will decide how to handle the charges.

A guided-missile cruiser in port for maintenance experienced its own fire in July. USS Gettysburg (CG-64) was at the BAE systems repair yard in Norfolk, Va., when a small fire broke out onboard. USNI News reported last year that ships undergoing maintenance phases are at a higher risk for fire damage due to ongoing hot work and welding.

In response to fires the service has experienced over the years, earlier this month Naval Sea Systems Command announced it had created the Industrial Fire Safety Assurance Group (IFSAG) to thwart future fires and harness better practices can be used both during maintenance phases and when building ships.

USS Connecticut (SSN-22) Sea Wolf-class nuclear attack submarine leaving San Diego, Calif., on Dec. 15, 2021. San Diego WebCam Photo

Meanwhile, the Navy hit another hurdle that is likely to affect its maintenance woes when Seawolf-class attack submarine USS Connecticut (SSN-722) struck an unmapped seamount in the South China Sea in October. The collision damaged the ballast tanks and the forward section of the boat, USNI News previously reported.

The submarine earlier this week reached its homeport in Bremerton, Wash., where it will be repaired. But the public shipyards already face a submarine maintenance backlog and the Navy’s acting assistant secretary for research, development and acquisition told Congress in October that fixing Connecticut at one of the public yards would affect the logjam of work.

“If we ended up doing [the Connecticut work] in one of the public shipyards that would certainly cause perturbations in all the other work in the shipyards,” Jay Stefany told the House Armed Services readiness subcommittee at the time.

The Navy’s ongoing maintenance backlog has caught the attention of lawmakers, who have expressed concern about the service’s 20-year timeline for the plan to modernize the public shipyards. In response to this concern, NAVSEA chief Vice Adm. Bill Galinis said earlier this year that his team was assessing the potential to speed up the Shipyard Infrastructure Optimization Plan (SIOP) to a 10 and 15-year timeline.

Top Stories 2020: U.S. Navy Acquisition

This post is part of a series of stories looking back at the top naval news from 2020. 2020 may be among the most consequential years for Navy acquisition in recent memory, with the service making big moves in support of its Distributed Maritime Operations operating concept. 2020 was the year the Navy officially started construction […]

Attack boat Vermont (SSN-792) float-off on March 29, 2019. General Dynamics Electric Boats Photo

This post is part of a series of stories looking back at the top naval news from 2020. 2020 may be among the most consequential years for Navy acquisition in recent memory, with the service making big moves in support of its Distributed Maritime Operations operating concept. 2020 was the year the Navy officially started construction on the Columbia-class ballistic missile submarine program, a massive every-other-generation effort to replace the sea-based nuclear deterrent subs. It was also the year the Constellation-class guided-missile frigate program was awarded to Fincantieri, who will design and build what will become a centerpiece of the future distributed fleet. It was the year the Navy called for an end to the F/A-18E-F Super Hornet program, reinvesting that money into a longer-range next-generation fighter that could help silence critics who say the aircraft carrier will be useless against China because the air wing’s range is too short. And it was the year the Navy and its Marine Corps partners moved out on a Light Amphibious Warship that could revolutionize how the Fleet Marine Force moves around a maritime theater in support of sea control and sea denial.

Surface Ships

Fincantieri FFG(X) Design based on the FREMM. Fincantieri Image

The surface fleet is among the parts of the Navy most changed by Distributed Maritime Operations. Rather than the Navy’s recent reliance on guided-missile cruisers and destroyers to drill with allies and partners, patrol chokepoints and conduct freedom of navigation operations, the Navy will instead rely on a large fleet of small combatants to do much of this day-to-day work, freeing up a smaller number of destroyers to conduct higher-end operations and haul around large, long-range missiles. Key to this plan is the success of the Constellation-class frigate. The Navy awarded a $795-million contract to Fincantieri on April 30 to do detail design work and build the first frigate in the class. Options for as many as nine more ships would bring the total value to $5.58 billion if exercised. Fincantieri beat out four other competitors with a design based on the FREMM multi-mission frigate already operated by the French and Italian navies. It will build the frigate at its Marinette Marine shipyard in Wisconsin. In October, the class officially received a name, with Navy Secretary Kenneth Braithwaite announcing the first-in-class ship would be USS Constellation (FFG-62) – after it was nearly named USS Agility by former SECNAV Thomas Modly earlier in the year. Though there will be fewer large combatants in the fleet, their mission will remain important: Navy leadership has said the large combatants of the future will haul around the biggest missiles, including hypersonic weapons.

USS Detroit (LCS-7) sails in formation with the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyers USS Lassen (DDG-82), USS Preble (DDG-88) and USS Farragut (DDG-99) while conducting maritime security operations in the Caribbean Sea. US Navy Photo

The Navy is still struggling to figure out how to get the ship it needs for a price it can afford, given the deemphasis on the large combatant portfolio in future fleet plans. What was once a 2023 start to the Large Surface Combatant program was pushed to 2025 and then 2026 – and this year, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday said the large combatant, which he calls “DDG-Next,” will begin detail design in 2026 and construction in 2028. New and important to the DMO concept – and the related Marine Corps concepts of Littoral Operations in a Contested Environment (LOCE) and Expeditionary Advance Base Operations (EABO) – are the Light Amphibious Warship (LAW) and the Next-Generation Logistics Ship (NGLS) programs that kicked off this year. After some Marine Corps officials had kicked around the idea of a stern-landing vessel for EABO operations last year, in February the Navy included in its Fiscal Year 2021 budget request $30 million each to begin working on the new amphib and new logistics ship.

Sea Transport Solutions Image

Throughout the summer, the vision of what LAW would become grew clearer, as the Marines made the case for small units operating outside the Amphibious Ready Group/Marine Expeditionary Unit construct. These units would move from shore to shore, providing the joint force forward refueling and rearming capabilities in remote locations, collecting intelligence, providing anti-ship and even anti-submarine strike capabilities, and more. Their small footprint and maneuverability with the LAWs would make them hard for an adversary to detect and hit. By the fall, a cost estimate of about $100 million apiece, as well as requirements for length, storage capacity, crewing and more emerged, showing the dedication to begin buying the ships in FY 2022. According to the long-range shipbuilding plan that accompanied the release of Battle Force 2045, the Next-Generation Logistics Ship would kick off procurement in FY 2023, though much less is known about that new ship compared to the LAW. This medium-sized ship would be able to help resupply the distributed Navy and Marine forces operating under DMO and EABO, while blending in with local merchant traffic and being harder for an adversary to target and disrupt the flow of supplies into theater. It’s unclear how far along the Navy is in developing its requirements. A previous effort for a somewhat larger set of ships to do resupply and other missions, called the Common Hull Auxiliary Multi-mission Platform (CHAMP), has hit several roadblocks as its price tag remains higher than Navy and White House officials are comfortable spending on an auxiliary ship.

Submarines

Virginia-class submarine Delaware (SSN-791) was moved out of a construction facility into a floating dry dock using a transfer car system in 2018. HII Photo

The Navy in November awarded $9.47 billion to General Dynamics Electric Boat to officially start construction on the first ballistic-missile submarine in the Columbia class. This SSBN program is the Navy’s all-important program with no room for error or delays, after all schedule margin was eaten up in the early days of the program and the future USS Columbia (SSBN-826) must be ready for its first patrol in the fall of 2030. Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, the Columbia program remained on track, in a nod to the importance on the program and the Navy prioritizing resources – available workers, materials and money – to keeping this program on track, even if it means attack submarines or aircraft carriers slipping in schedule. Still, though the program has remained on track, the Navy announced last month it was looking at extending the life of the legacy Ohio-class SSBNs – again – to provide a bit of additional capacity for combatant commanders and a bit of cushion in case there are hiccups in the future with the Columbia program. Partly as a result of keeping Columbia on track, the Virginia-class attack submarines slipped further behind in production this year, after already having some schedule delays as the program tried to maintain a two-a-year production rate. Threatening to further challenge the program was a White House proposal to buy just one SSN in FY 2021, which would throw off the workflow for thousands of suppliers trying to smoothly ramp up their production rates to accommodate both the Virginia and the Columbia programs. The White House reversed course in late November and expressed support for a second Virginia sub. Looking towards the future, the Navy this year made headway planning for its Block VI Virginia design – which would add new capability and lethality such as improved stealth and the ability to conduct seabed warfare – as well as the SSN(X) design that would build upon both Block VI and the Columbia SSBN design. All told, the Navy is trying to morph its attack submarine fleet to something closer to the Seawolf class, which was designed to operate deep into Soviet waters and go head-to-head with peer adversary subs, compared to the Virginia class which was originally designed for land-attack and intelligence-collection missions.

Carrier Aviation

Sailors assigned to the air department aboard the aircraft carrier USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN-78) prepare to launch an F/A-18F Super Hornet attached to the Gladiators of Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 106 during flight operations, March 29, 2020. US Navy Photo

Even as the Navy continued on with its Ford-class carriers this year, questions began swirling about the class’s future and what might come next to either replace or to supplement the Ford-class supercarrier. In March, Modly kicked off a Blue-Ribbon Future Carrier 2030 Task Force to look at the future of aircraft carriers and whether the U.S. Navy would stick with the Ford class beyond the future Doris Miller (CVN-81), whether it would move to a different nuclear-powered carrier design, or whether it would use conventionally powered carriers. Despite the prominent figures on the task force, it was not particularly well received: any reduction in demand for nuclear ship components could break the fragile industrial base, some worried, while others were concerned that the 11-carrier fleet was already overworked today and that the task force could lead to a reduction in CVNs in the future without a reduction in demand for their presence in theater. Though the study itself was canceled just two months later by Acting SECNAV James McPherson, the idea lingered: former Defense Secretary Mark Esper became interested in the notion of a conventionally powered light carrier to supplement the nuclear-powered supercarrier, and after months of study he settled on a plan to field eight to 11 CVNs – possibly down from today’s 11 – and supplement them with as many as six CVLs. He and Navy officials conceded that much work needed to be done to figure out what the CVL would look like and how to balance the two classes of ships.

Aviation Ordnancemen assigned to USS Gerald R. Ford’s (CVN 78) weapons department bring inert training bombs up to the flight deck during flight operations May 30, 2020. Ford is underway in the Atlantic Ocean conducting integrated air wing operations. US Navy photo.

Despite the questions about the future of carriers, the Ford-class program continued along, with USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN-78) at times spending more days at sea than in port to conduct post-delivery tests and trials and get ready for full-ship shock trials next summer. Despite PDT&T moving ahead of schedule and the troubled Advanced Weapons Elevators finally coming online in numbers, the Navy fired its CVN-78 program manager and brought in a captain with “proven program management acumen and extensive waterfront experience” to see Ford through its remaining work before being fully turned over to the fleet for a maiden deployment.

Aircraft

An F/A-18E Super Hornet, attached to the ‘Dambusters’ of Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 195, prepares to land on the flight deck of USS Ronald Reagan (CVN-76) on Oct. 16, 2020. US Navy Photo

In a major move for carrier aviation, the Navy announced in February in its FY 2021 budget request that it would not continue Super Hornet production beyond the end of the current multiyear contract, which runs through FY 2021. Funding that had been planned for another contract for FY 2022 through 2024 would instead be diverted to “accelerated development of Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) and other key aviation wholeness investments.” With little fanfare, the Navy stood up an NGAD program office under Naval Air Systems Command in May and quickly began industry talks. Though investing in NGAD was the primary reason for ending the Super Hornet line, the Navy also said that stopping new Super Hornet production would free up the production line for Super Hornet life extension work, which the Navy needs to add capability to the jets and keep them around long enough for a replacement to be designed and built.

Sailors assigned to Fleet Logistics Multi-Mission Squadron (VRM) 30 direct a CMV-22B Osprey from the ‘Titans’ of VRM 30 on the flight deck of Nimitz-class nuclear aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson (CVN-70) on Nov. 20, 2020. US Navy Photo

Supporting a near-term change for the carrier air wing, Bell-Boeing delivered the first CMV-22B Osprey to the Navy in February, allowing the Navy to start a short test and evaluation program before turning the aircraft over to the operational squadron that will support the first deployment in 2021. The Navy needs the CMV-22 to serve as its new carrier onboard delivery (COD) platform because the legacy C-2 Greyhound cannot carry a large F-35C engine; the Osprey could carry the engine out to an aircraft carrier and would also have the added flexibility of being able to bring people and supplies directly to the other ships in the strike group, which can support the V-22 landing on their helicopter decks. USS Carl Vinson (CVN-70) will make the first deployment with the F-35C in 2021, so the CMV-22 needs to be ready too for that deployment. Looking a few years out, the Navy is making good progress on its MQ-25A Stingray unmanned carrier-based refueling tanker. In April the Navy exercised a contract option to buy three more aircraft from Boeing, and in December the Stingray made its first flight with the refueling system attached under its wings.

Unmanned Systems

Medium Displacement Unmanned Surface Vehicle (MDUSV) prototype Sea Hunter pulls into Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii on Oct. 31, 2018. US Navy Photo

In other unmanned news, the Navy set off down a path to design and build medium and large unmanned surface vessels of its own, after earlier work had been done with Pentagon-purchased USVs. L3 Technologies in July won a $35-million contract to develop a prototype Medium Unmanned Surface Vehicle (MUSV), with options for eight follow-on craft that could bring the contract to a value of $281 million. In September, the Navy awarded six companies contracts to begin determining what the service’s Large Unmanned Surface Vehicle will look like. Austal USA, Huntington Ingalls Industries, Fincantieri Marinette, Bollinger Shipyards, Lockheed Martin and Gibbs & Cox each won about $7 million for LUSV design studies. Using Pentagon-built prototypes, the Navy operated the Sea Hunter medium USV with a carrier strike group this year, and an Overlord large USV conducted the first-ever autonomous transit of the Panama Canal as it sailed from the Gulf of Mexico to Southern California. In the undersea domain, just this week the Navy released its final request for proposals for the Snakehead Large Displacement Unmanned Underwater Vehicle (LDUUV) program, with the intention to select a single vendor next year to begin designing and building two prototypes.

Plans and Budgets

USS Ronald Reagan (CVN-76) and USS Nimitz (CVN-68) and their carrier strike groups (CSGs) steam in formation on July 6, 2020. US Navy Photo

Though many of these moves in 2020 will be instrumental in creating the fleet the Navy and Marine Corps know they need to deter China or win a fight if needed – especially the unmanned vessels, the light amphib and the frigate – the exact future shipbuilding plans for the Navy are still unclear. After the Navy and Marine Corps wrapped up an Integrated Naval Force Structure Assessment in January, Esper did not agree it was the right plan. He ultimately kicked off a Pentagon-led Future Naval Force Study that worked from February to October to look at what the sea services needed to do to be prepared to beat China in a fight in the 2045 timeframe. This effort led to a Battle Force 2045 plan that had all the same themes as the Navy’s original INFSA earlier in the year. The Pentagon couched the differences as a matter of timelines and how aggressively to begin making changes: The Navy had been focused on a 2030 timeframe and what needed to happen quickly to overhaul the fleet in the next decade to support DMO, LOCE and EABO. The Pentagon instead took a longer view meant to incorporate what kind of threat China could ultimately become in the long run and therefore what the Navy and Marines would need to do to counter it – with the expectation that transformation would start now with that 2045 threat in mind. The plan will need buy-in from lawmakers, who have been largely unimpressed with the plans presented to them this year. The original FY 2021 budget request was called “dead on arrival” after it contained the smallest shipbuilding budget in years. The Battle Force 2045 and its accompanying long-range shipbuilding plan was panned for the opposite reason, for being out of touch with budget realities and calling for too quick a naval buildup.