Top Stories 2020: COVID-19 Pandemic

This post is part of a series of stories looking back at the top naval news from 2020. The coronavirus pandemic affected almost everything the Navy did in 2020, from the way the service deploys forces, to the way its contractors built ships and weapons, to the way sailors and officers were educated and trained. The […]

Sailors prepare to man the rails as the Navy’s only forward-deployed aircraft carrier, USS Ronald Reagan (CVN-76), returns to Yokosuka, Japan following a six-month underway period. US Navy Photo

This post is part of a series of stories looking back at the top naval news from 2020.

The coronavirus pandemic affected almost everything the Navy did in 2020, from the way the service deploys forces, to the way its contractors built ships and weapons, to the way sailors and officers were educated and trained.

The outbreak on USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71) gained the most attention due to the scale of the outbreak – more than 1,200 personnel were infected – and the political fallout – the ship’s captain was fired by then-Acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly, who then, in turn, was fired for his handling of the outbreak. Though garnering less attention, dozens of other ships and bases saw cases, too, which they had to quickly quell with new and evolving Navy protocol before they spread out of control.

Since February – when Navy personnel stationed in Italy first had to worry about growing infection rates and looming lockdowns – 29,060 Navy sailors, dependents, civilians and contractors have contracted the disease. Two sailors have died, as have 26 civilians, 12 contractors and one dependent.

Theodore Roosevelt Outbreak

Sailors assigned to the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71) move meals, ready to eat (MREs) for sailors who have tested negative for COVID-19 on April 7, 2020. US Navy Photo

The Theodore Roosevelt Carrier Strike Group deployed Jan. 17, when the virus was still largely a problem for China and surrounding countries. The aircraft carrier implemented some mitigation steps such as bleaching hard surfaces twice a day, but the risk was considered so minimal that a port call to Vietnam was made March 5, with U.S. Pacific Fleet leadership flying in for a 400-person reception to mark the carrier’s historic visit to Da Nang. Thirty reporters were brought out to the carrier for tours.

As the port call was ending, 39 sailors from the carrier were put into quarantine after it was discovered that two British travelers staying at their hotel were infected, but by March 14 they had all tested negative for the disease and were let out of quarantine. Carrier onboard delivery, or COD, flights continued to and from the ship throughout much of March.

On March 24, the first three sailors were diagnosed with COVID-19. Navy leadership denied the outbreak was tied to the port call in Vietnam. The three sick sailors were flown off the ship to quarantine on Guam.

Adm. John Aquilino discusses the Expeditionary Medical Facility (EMF) with Capt. Jerry Hutchinson, EMF executive officer on Guam on May 3, 2020. US Navy Photo

Two days later, the carrier pulled into Guam. At the time, the Navy said they had found “several” more cases on the ship, though by April 1 that rose to 93 positive cases, by April 12 it was 585 positive cases, and by April 14 it was 950 sailors. In total, more than 1,200 sailors, or about a quarter of those in the ship’s crew and air wing, contracted the disease.

Following a March 30 memo from then-TR Commanding Officer Capt. Brett Crozier, on March 31 PACFLT Commander Adm. John Aquilino said the Navy was looking for government housing and hotel rooms for sailors on TR to quarantine ashore.

Capt. Brett Crozier, then-commanding officer of the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71), addresses the crew during an all-hands call on the ship’s flight deck on Nov. 15, 2019. US Navy Photo

Though most of the sick sailors were able to quarantine in single-person rooms and wait out the illness, one was found unresponsive in his room during the twice-daily medical checks. Aviation Ordnanceman Chief Petty Officer Charles Robert Thacker Jr., 41, died April 13 in U.S. Naval Hospital Guam from complications from COVID-19.

After 55 days in Guam battling the outbreak, the carrier returned to sea on May 20 with about half its crew to begin workups ahead of resuming the deployment. A minimal crew was used during this event, as many were still completing their quarantines and awaiting two consecutive negative COVID tests. On June 3 the carrier picked up the air wing and much of the rest of the crew. The carrier rejoined its strike group and remained on deployment in the Pacific until July 9.

Leadership Fallout

Acting Secretary of the Navy Thomas Modly speaks to Sailors aboard the Military Sealift Command hospital ship USNS Mercy (T-AH-19) from across the brow via the ship’s 1-MC public address system, March 31, 2020. US Navy Photo

Even as Theodore Roosevelt was tied to the pier in Guam, the ripples from the outbreak were being felt at the Pentagon.

After Crozier’s March 30 memo was leaked to the San Francisco Chronicle, reactions were mixed: some were horrified that the sailors on TR had to face the deadly outbreak with so little help from their chain of command, while others were shocked that Crozier went around that chain of command and blasted out his plea for more rapid assistance even as plans were already in the works.

Modly fired Crozier on April 2, saying he “demonstrated extremely poor judgment in the middle of a crisis.” In the immediate aftermath, President Donald Trump and then-Defense Secretary Mark Esper expressed support for Modly’s decision.

However, Modly flew to Guam and spoke to the sailors on April 6, telling them in a mix of prepared remarks and off-the-cuff comments – which were recorded and leaked to the press – that Crozier may have committed a “serious violation of the Uniformed Code of Military Justice” and was not fit to command a carrier. After the speech audio was leaked, Modly tried to apologize, but the damage was done: lawmakers quickly began calling for his resignation. Modly resigned the next day.

A preliminary investigation by Navy uniformed leadership into the handling of the outbreak on the carrier was set to end April 6, but its release dragged, with word leaking in late April that Navy leadership wanted to reinstate Crozier as skipper of the carrier. After Esper suggested there may be more questions that needed to be answered, a longer investigation spanned until late May, and ultimately on June 19 the Navy announced Crozier would not be reinstated as captain of TR.

USS Kidd, Other Ships

Lt. Cmdr. Andrew Sullivan, assigned to Commander, Naval Surface Force, U.S. Pacific Fleet Medical Readiness Division, center, addresses the medical team while preparing for Sailors aboard the guided-missile destroyer USS Kidd (DDG-100) as part of the Navy response to the COVID-19 outbreak on board the ship on April 28 , 2020. US Navy Photo

Theodore Roosevelt was the ship hit hardest by COVID, but it was not hit first.

By mid-March, sailors assigned to San Diego-based ships USS Boxer (LHD-4), USS Ralph Johnson (DDG-114) and USS Coronado (LCS-4) had already tested positive for COVID-19, as had four Naval Special Warfare sailors training at Naval Base Kitsap-Bangor. On March 24, the day the Navy announced three TR sailors had been diagnosed with COVID-19, 54 other sailors had already been diagnosed with the disease elsewhere in the fleet. Around that time, PACFLT ceased announcing which ships and units were affected by COVID, calling it “a matter of operational security.”

Still, the Navy couldn’t hide another outbreak on a deployed ship: USS Kidd (DDG-100). The destroyer had been serving in the Theodore Roosevelt CSG, but the sailors were not involved in the Vietnam port call or in contact with the ship’s crew or air wing. In April, Kidd peeled away from the CSG – with the carrier in port in Guam – to serve in U.S. Southern Command as part of a counter-drug effort. On April 24, the Navy confirmed 18 sailors on the ship had tested positive, even though a month had passed since the ship made its last port call in Hawaii.

The crew of Charles de Gaulle wear masks while underway. French Navy Photo

Amphibious assault ship USS Makin Island (LHD-8) was ordered to rendezvous with Kidd in the Eastern Pacific to lend its fleet surgical team, intensive care unit, ventilators and testing capability if the Navy needed to treat the outbreak at sea. After 15 sailors were moved to Makin Island for treatment and two more flown ashore for care, the Navy ordered Kidd to return to San Diego.

American sailors weren’t the only ones facing the disease: an April outbreak on French aircraft carrier FS Charles de Gaulle (R91) quickly numbered in the hundreds, with ultimately about two thirds of the crew – 1,046 sailors out of 1,760 – plus a few dozen on other ships assigned to the carrier strike group contracting COVID-19. In October, more than 30 members of the crew of the U.K. Royal Navy ballistic-missile submarine HMS Vigilant (S30) tested positive for COVID-19 following a port visit to Navy Submarine Base Kings Bay in Georgia. In early October, most of the Joint Chiefs of Staff were in quarantine after Vice Commandant of the Coast Guard Adm. Charles Ray tested positive for the disease following a meeting with the Joint Chiefs.

Safety Protocols

Sailors assigned to the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71) stand-by to depart the ship for quarantine after completing essential watch standing duties on April 25, 2020. US Navy Photo

By the time a small group of sailors on USS Ronald Reagan (CVN-76) tested positive for COVID-19 in early September, the Navy had refined its protocols well enough to avoid a major outbreak.

Starting with the Nimitz Carrier Strike Group workups and deployment in April, a ship’s crew had to quarantine for 14 days before heading to sea, and the squadrons conducted their quarantine at their home stations before flying out to the carrier. Because of the need to quarantine for two weeks ahead of going to sea, the Navy changed up the schedule for pre-deployment training and certification. Previously the ships would go to sea for advanced phase training such as the Surface Warfare Advanced Tactical Training, come home, regather for a Composite Training Unit Exercise (COMPTUEX) certification exercise, go home to bid their families farewell, and then deploy. Now, with the threat of a COVID infection rising every time the sailors left their bubble and went home, the Navy decided to consolidate all the activities, with the ships heading out to sea for training and certification and then flowing right into their deployment. Creating a COVID-free bubble, plus buying enough test kits for ships to use prior to and during deployments as well as implementing social distancing and mask-wearing policies, was thought to create safe enough conditions for the Navy to continue deploying as needed around the globe during 2020.

Though safer for the sailors deploying, the Navy has broken several records this year for most at-sea time, since the sailors have been at sea with no breaks for not only the seven-month deployment but also all the training that led up to deploying.

The Blue Angels, flies over the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier, USS Harry S. Truman (CVN-75) on May 20, 2020. US Navy Photo

As the Navy worked its way through figuring out how to get its first strike group, the Nimitz CSG, out the door without any COVID cases, the service decided it needed to have a COVID-free carrier ready in case of emergency. As a result, the Harry S. Truman CSG was ordered to stay off the coast of Virginia upon the completion of its deployment to the Middle East. Until Nimitz CSG was certified and ready for national tasking, the Navy couldn’t take any chances with Truman CSG sailors coming home, getting sick, and then being asked to get back to sea for an emergency assignment. That at-sea loitering lasted from about April 13 to June 16.

Adding to the burden of longer at-sea times was the inability to safely set up port calls during deployments. In the early days of the pandemic, the Navy in late February called for a 14-day period between port calls in U.S. 7th Fleet – a “prudent” step “to protect our ports and prevent any particular spread to our allies and partners and, obviously, protect our forces,” the Navy said – but that turned into an all-out ban on port calls by late March. A handful of “safe haven” ports were created, including the first one in Guam in June, so sailors could get off their ships and have access to cell phone reception without coming into contact with anyone outside their crewmates. However, not all ships had access to safe haven ports, leading to some difficult deployments this year: USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN-69), for example, was at sea for 161 consecutive days during its deployment.

Other major changes for the Navy revolved around moving new recruits around for basic training and follow-on job training, as well as allowing for permanent change of station moves around the globe.

What started out as blanket bans on movement, liberty and other opportunities for sailors to be exposed to the virus became more nuanced as the Navy and the world learned more about COVID-19. On March 15 Esper announced a stop-movement order initially set to last two months, though in May it was extended to late June. As it became clear that the military would have to learn to live with COVID-19 for at least another year, the policies restricting movement became more conditions-based, allowing local base commanders to play a greater role in determining when it was safe for them to “reopen” for personnel movements again, for example. After a short halt in bringing new recruits to basic training, they were allowed into training after completing a 14-day restriction of movement (ROM) quarantine ahead of time – for a time, that ROM was conducted in a closed water park in Illinois due to lack of single-person rooms at the recruit station – and once in basic training they were kept in a “bubble” that saw them through their initial military occupational specialty training and into their first assignments, having no contact with the outside world and no leave time until they had successfully completed training.

Hospital Ship Responses

Hospital Corpsman 3rd Class Yesenia Ocenasek, from Camp Pendleton, Calif., inventories medical equipment in the sterilization processing department aboard the hospital ship USNS Mercy (T-AH-19) on May 6, 2020. US Navy Photo

When New York City was facing a nightmarish situation early in the pandemic, and then soon after Los Angeles-area hospitals were overwhelmed too, the idea of deploying Navy hospital ships to alleviate the stress on overflowing hospitals was exciting to many.

By March 17 USNS Mercy (T-AH-19) and USNS Comfort (T-AH-20) were beginning to get activated, and the next day Trump said Comfort would deploy to New York City. Mercy was originally expected to go to Seattle, whose suburbs had the very first outbreaks in the United States, but on March 23 the ship left San Diego for a short trip up to Los Angeles, which was deemed more likely to have patient need surpassing hospital capacity. Comfort left Norfolk, Va., for New York on March 28.

USNS Comfort (T-AH 20) conducts scheduled lifeboat training in accordance with US Coast Guard certification and watch keeping regulations before returning to Naval Station Norfolk on May 1, 2020. The ship and its embarked medical task force remain prepared for future tasking. The Navy, along with other U.S. Northern Command dedicated forces, remains engaged throughout the nation in support of the broader COVID-19 response. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Sara Eshleman US Navy Photo

Though expectations were high, the ships did not contribute as much as expected: the plan was to bring non-COVID patients to the ships, allowing the staffs there to focus on trauma care and heart attacks, while the city hospitals with better ventilation and isolation capabilities focused on the highly infectious disease. Instead, the screening process proved too cumbersome to bring in patients in great numbers, and patients brought to the ships for things like broken bones turned out to have COVID too.

By late April, Comfort left New York City having treated 182 patients, and Mercy left Los Angeles after treating 77 patients.

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.

Top Stories 2020: International Naval Acquisition

This post is part of a series of stories looking back at the top naval news from 2020. China, Russia and the U.S. all announced sweeping expansions of their naval capacity in 2020 as the three largest world fleets vie for high seas influence in a declared era of great power competition. The new tone for […]

HMS Queen Elizabeth R08 arriving back in Portsmouth July 2, 2020 after a period at sea conducting Operational Sea Training. UK Royal Navy Photo

This post is part of a series of stories looking back at the top naval news from 2020.

China, Russia and the U.S. all announced sweeping expansions of their naval capacity in 2020 as the three largest world fleets vie for high seas influence in a declared era of great power competition. The new tone for naval forces is helping U.S. allies achieve more lethal navies and expanded capabilities.

Everyone Wants an Aircraft Carrier

Chinese carrier Shandong. PLA Photo

While a debate of the future aircraft carrier force raged in the U.S., American allies and adversaries moved to purchase their own naval aviation capability.

In China, the People’s Liberation Army Navy made progress on its third aircraft carrier that would be a domestic design featuring modern catapults and arresting gear. The Type 003 (occasionally referred to in the West as the Type 002) is a departure from the Soviet-style carriers currently in the PLAN’s inventory.

“This design will enable it to support additional fighter aircraft, fixed-wing early-warning aircraft, and more rapid flight operations and thus extend the reach and effectiveness of its carrier-based strike aircraft. [China’s] second domestically built carrier is projected to be operational by 2024, with additional carriers to follow,” the Pentagon’s annual report to Congress on Chinese military capabilities.

At least one senior U.S. official said China’s enthusiasm for the program makes a case for the efficacy of the carrier platform.

“To me that makes all the sense, they’re a maritime power and they understand the great value that comes from carrier aviation and how that can shape the international environment. It’s taken us over 100 years to get that right,” Adm. Chris Grady, commander of U.S. Fleet Forces Command, said during the American Society of Naval Engineers 2020 Fleet Maintenance Modernization Symposium in September.
“Lot of blood, lot of loss of life, a lot of sweat and tears to make naval aviation work. We’ve got a huge lead and one that will continue to expand into the future. Go ahead and build that big ship, but to build the ecosystem that is naval aviation that brings that ship to life – that’s going to take a lot of hard work and time.”

Concept image of the LPX-II Lighting Carrier from South Korea. Republic of Korea Navy Image

South Korea is developing capacity to allow their big-deck ships to launch fixed-wing fighters. Following Japan’s conversion of its two Izumo-class helicopter destroyers to field F-35B Lightning II Joint Strike Fighters, the Republic of Korea Navy is building a light carrier to field F-35Bs. The LPX-II carrier will be dedicated to naval aviation and not be modeled after U.S. and Japanese big deck amphibs, USNI News and Naval News reported in August.

Artist’s impression of PANG aircraft carrier.

France kicked off its own carrier program with an announcement from President Emmanuel Macron in early December. The PANG (Porte Avion Nouvelle Generation, or next-generation aircraft carrier) program is set to produce a replacement for the existing FS Charles de Gaulle (R91) aircraft carrier around 2038. Reuters reported the carrier could cost up to $6 billion.

The U.K. Royal Navy continued the development of its two-ship Queen Elizabeth-class carrier program with a carrier strike group exercise featuring lead ship HMS Queen Elizabeth (R08). HMS Prince of Wales (R09) was commissioned in late 2019 and has been working through post-delivery trials. The ship is currently undergoing repairs after major flooding in October. In November, the U.K. proposed a massive $32-billion military expansion that includes a larger Royal Navy fleet.

China’s Rapid Naval Expansion

Chinese sailors. Xinhua Photo

China’s rapid expansion of the People’s Liberation Army Navy drew major concern from the Pentagon in 2020.

“The PRC has the largest navy in the world, with an overall battle force of approximately 350 ships and submarines including over 130 major surface combatants. In comparison, the U.S. Navy’s battle force is approximately 293 ships as of early 2020. China is the top ship-producing nation in the world by tonnage and is increasing its shipbuilding capacity and capability for all naval classes,” reads the Pentagon’s annual China military power report.

China is expanding its fleet in every area.

“It’s important to highlight the Chinese shipbuilding advantages in terms of its size of the fleet, is both in context of the broader modernization ambitions, virtual class military. This is a long-term challenge, and it’s not only demarcated by a single variable, which would be total number of vessels, tonnage capacity, capabilities, location, posture, activities, and then other aspects,” Chad Sbragia, deputy assistant secretary of defense for China, said in September.

In addition to aircraft carriers, the PLAN kept up a high rate of construction throughout 2020.

The report highlighted the launch of almost two dozen Luyang III guided-missile destroyers, the commissioning of the 30th Jiangkai II-class guided-missile frigate, the construction of six Renhai guided-missile cruisers and the entrance more than 40 Jiangdao corvettes into the PLAN fleet.

The lead Chinese Type-075 preparing for sea trials. Photo via Weibo

China is also expanding its amphibious fleet, marked by the start of sea trials for the Type-075 big-deck amphibious warship. The Congressional Research Service tied the development of the Type-075 and the Type-071 amphibious warship to Beijing’s desire to reunite with Taiwan.

“The Type 075 would be of value for conducting amphibious landings in Taiwan-related conflict scenarios, some observers believe that China is building such ships as much for their value in conducting other operations, such as operations for asserting and defending China’s claims in the South and East China Seas, humanitarian assistance/disaster relief (HA/DR) operations, maritime security operations (such as antipiracy operations), and noncombatant evacuation operations (NEOs),” the report reads.

China is also looking to expand its submarine force.

“The PLAN currently operates four nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) with two additional hulls fitting out, six nuclear-powered attack submarines (SSNs), and 50 diesel-powered attack submarines (SSs). The PLAN will likely maintain between 65 and 70 submarines through the 2020s, replacing older units with more capable units on a near one-to-one basis,” reads the report.

Many of the new platforms are fielding new anti-ship weapons and land-attack cruise missiles.

HI Sutton Image, used with permission

China also developed its own unmanned surface vehicle that bears a resemblance to the U.S. Navy’s Sea Hunter program.

Russia’s Less Rapid Naval Expansion

K-560 Severodvinsk in 2018. Russian MoD Photo

Russia has seen a more modest uptick in naval construction in 2020.

In July, Russian Navy head Adm. Nikolai Yevmenov promised the Russian Navy would commission 40 ships into service – a mix of corvettes, mine countermeasures ships, ballistic missile submarines and a blend of nuclear and diesel-electric attack boats.

Among the most important shipbuilding efforts for the Russian Navy is the Yasen-class nuclear attack boat program.

The Russians have been slow to deliver the highly capable attack boats with only one, Severodvinsk, currently in service. Second-in-class Kazan is close to commissioning, successfully test firing both land-attack and anti-ship missiles in a training range near the Northern Fleet’s White Sea naval base, reported Naval News. The third ship in the class is also set to commission soon.

The effectiveness of the Yasen boats have, in part, driven the U.S. to pay more attention to anti-submarine warfare efforts in the Atlantic.

Jane’s reported that the Russians had laid the keel for two more Yasen attack boats, bringing the total under construction to eight.

The Russian Navy is moving to expand its fleet in the Pacific, announcing an increase of 15 ships in its Pacific Fleet in 2020 in the state-controlled Tass wire service.

Top Stories 2020: Marine Corps Operations

This post is part of a series of stories looking back at the top naval news from 2020. 2020 was a turning-point year for the Marine Corps. After previewing changes to come in his Commandant’s Planning Guidance released last year, Commandant Gen. David Berger released a Force Design 2030 document this year outlining major changes […]

Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Austin McBain, a fire support specialist with 1st Air Naval Gunfire Liaison Company, I Marine Expeditionary Force (MEF) Information Group, monitors a radio during exercise Summer Fury 20 in Yuma, Ariz., on July 14, 2020. US Marine Corps Photo

This post is part of a series of stories looking back at the top naval news from 2020.

2020 was a turning-point year for the Marine Corps. After previewing changes to come in his Commandant’s Planning Guidance released last year, Commandant Gen. David Berger released a Force Design 2030 document this year outlining major changes in how the service would operate and equip itself. No longer would the Marine Corps be a service schlepping around tanks for sustained ground operations; rather, it would be light and mobile, using small ships to maneuver around islands and shorelines to attack an adversary from all angles and challenge their ability to track and target the small and on-the-move units.

And Berger didn’t stop at just releasing the plan: divestments are starting, new units are forming, wargames and exercises are reflecting new concepts of operations.

“In my professional opinion, we have to change. We have to move out now,” Berger told lawmakers recently.

Force Design 2030

U.S. Marines with Charlie Company, Infantry Training Battalion, School of Infantry – West, fire an M98A2 Javelin guided missile system during a field-fire demonstration as part of the Anti-Tank Missileman Course at Range 204B on Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, California, Jan. 22, 2020. ITB trains, develops and certifies Marines as riflemen, as well as their primary military occupational specialty within the infantry field, before sending them to join the Fleet Marine Force. US Marine Corps photo.

Berger released Force Design 2030 in March, laying out the first iteration of his vision of what the Marines needed to morph into to be successful in the future: a focus on maritime campaigning; close integration with the Navy, especially in sea control and sea denial missions; an emphasis on small units that could maneuver around islands and shorelines and bring with them logistics, anti-ship missiles, surveillance equipment, or whatever else the joint force needed dispersed throughout the battlespace.

In some ways, this vision was a culmination of everything the Marines had been working towards: many of the concepts relied on using the KC-130J on expeditionary runways and using the F-35B’s vertical takeoff and landing capabilities to get into remote areas. But in some ways it was wholly new: no longer would the Marines conducting these island-hopping missions start out aggregated on an amphibious warship, drop out the back of the well deck in a connector and then move ashore for operations; instead, the concept would rely on Marines on small ships that don’t exist today, such as a Light Amphibious Warship (LAW) that is habitable for the crew for longer durations of time but can also directly beach themselves to put Marines ashore.

The release of Force Design 2030 wasn’t the end of the effort, but rather the beginning of a massive wargaming, modeling and simulation, and live exercise bonanza that will stretch into next year.

U.S. Marines with Lima Company, 3rd Battalion, 3d Marine Regiment, traverse through water during an amphibious assault exercise, Marine Corps Base Hawaii, May 28, 2020. Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 3d Marine Regiment, and Lima Company, 3rd Battalion, 3d Marine Regiment, conducted an amphibious assault exercise and military operations in urban terrain to increase littoral mobility proficiency in 3d Marine Regiment and advance the goals of the Commandant of the Marine Corps 2030 Force Design. US Marine Corps photo.

So far, the first Marine Littoral Regiment was stood up in Hawaii to start experimenting with things like long-range ground-based anti-ship missiles, as well as either LAW prototypes or surrogates to start understanding what operations might look like with these new units and new capabilities. The service also entered into Phase III of the Force Design effort, described as a “campaign of learning approach” where teams will basically stress test the plan as it exists today by asking difficult questions of it and seeking answers through wargaming and experimentation. Much of this learning will culminate in a massive 2021 Large Scale Exercise that will involve multiple carrier strike groups and amphibious ready groups and will focus on the new operating concepts: Distributed Maritime Operations (DMO), Littoral Operations in a Contested Environment (LOCE), and Expeditionary Advance Base Operations (EABO).

Though much is still to be learned through the ongoing campaign of learning, Berger is sure enough that they’re heading in the right direction to call for a restructure of Marine forces in the Pacific, to spread out beyond hubs in Japan and South Korea. While deterring China in the Pacific is his main focus now, later experimentation may look at creating alternate unit formations better tailored to challenging Russia in the North Atlantic, for example.

Of course, this is all coming at a time when defense budgets are expected to be flat or declining, so Berger said all along that he’d create a plan that the Marine Corps could pay for within its current topline. To do so, the service has taken a “divest to invest” strategy, announcing that “by the year 2030, the Marine Corps will see complete divestments of Law Enforcement Battalions, Tank Battalions and associated Military Occupational Specialties (MOS), and all Bridging Companies. Additionally, the Corps will reduce the number of infantry battalions from 24 to 21; artillery cannon batteries from 21 to 5; amphibious vehicle companies from 6 to 4; and reduce tilt rotor, attack, and heavy lift squadrons.” A further review would be conducted to see if the aviation reductions – specifically, limiting F-35 squadrons to just 10 aircraft each instead of 16 – should lead to a reduction in the planned buy from contractor Lockheed Martin.

F-35 Operations

F-35B Lightning II Joint Strike Fighters with Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 211 and the 617 Squadron sit on the flight deck aboard HMS Queen Elizabeth at sea on Oct. 6. 2020. US Marine Corps Photo

The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter was among the best examples this year of the Marines pivoting in stride and refocusing towards Berger’s vision. Though fielding the F-35B and C jets has been decades in the making for the Marine Corps, ongoing F-35B and nascent F-35C activities this year nested well into the priorities of Force Design.

After spending 2019 learning how to incorporate the vertical takeoff and landing F-35B into the Marines’ island-hopping EABO concept, they took it a step further this year: incorporating the carrier-based F-35C into those plans.

The Marines’ first F-35Cs began flowing into Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, Calif., in late January to support Marine Fighter Attack Squadron (VMFA) 314, the first squadron to transition to the next generation of carrier-based Marine aviation. In March the squadron was certified “safe for flight,” meaning they could train on their own without the supervision of the fleet replacement squadron, and earlier this month the squadron reached initial operational capability. Among the first things the squadron did after achieving IOC: demonstrating the ability to quickly rearm and refuel at expeditionary land bases, a centerpiece of EABO that will allow the Marines to stray far from their aircraft carriers and conduct stealthy missions on behalf of the joint force.

U.S. Marines with Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 314 and Marine Aerial Refueler Transport Squadron 352, Marine Aircraft Group 11, 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing, conduct a new expeditionary landing demonstration with M-31 arresting gear Interim Flight Clearance (IFC), on Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center Twentynine Palms, Calif., on Dec. 3, 2020. US Marine Corps Photo

Noting an expected deployment in late 2021 aboard aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN-72), Maj. Robert Ahern, a pilot with VMFA-314, explained the urgency of the expeditionary landing and refueling, saying that as early as next year “we may be called upon to execute expeditionary advanced base operations. We need to be able to do this. This is something that hasn’t been done yet with the F-35C.”

A second tenet of future military concepts that the Marines’ F-35 community has focused on this year is interoperability and close collaboration with allies. In September, the “Wake Island Avengers” of Marine Fighter Attack Squadron (VMFA) 211 flew to the United Kingdom to begin training ahead of a joint deployment aboard aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth (R08). The U.S. Marines and their U.K. counterparts conducted a group exercise and participated in NATO exercise Joint Warrior off Scotland.

“With a total of 14 jets and eight Merlin helicopters, it’s the largest concentration of fighter jets to operate at sea from a Royal Navy carrier since HMS Hermes in 1983, and the largest air group of fifth generation fighters at sea anywhere in the world,” the Royal Navy said at the time.

VMFA-211 will deploy with Queen Elizabeth in the spring.

Major Events

Recruits with Alpha Company, 1st Recruit Training Battalion, wait in line at Marine Corps Recruit Depot, San Diego, Sept. 22, 2020. US Marine Corps Photo

Despite the global COVID-19 pandemic – and the relative ease of blue-water navy exercises compared to the greater precautions needed for amphibious warfare and other ashore training drills – the Marines kept busy this year around the world.

Perhaps most challenging was the rotational deployment to Darwin, Australia, which was put on hold in March due to the growing pandemic.

In May, the service announced it would resume its annual rotational deployment after Australia agreed to grant an exemption to its COVID-19 travel restrictions. The Marine Rotational Force-Darwin (MRF-D) would involve about 1,200 Marines – just half the originally planned 2,500, due to COVID – who would train in the Northern Australia region. All were required to quarantine for 14 days upon arrival in Australia, with COVID tests being given at the beginning and at the end of the quarantine period.

Though a smaller group than originally planned, with no manned aviation assets deploying this year – but some unmanned aircraft for intelligence-gathering – the group worked with their Australian counterparts on increased interoperability in command-and-control, fire support coordination and aviation planning.

U.S. Marine Corps Capt. David Reece, a joint terminal attack controller with 1st Air Naval Gunfire Liaison Company, looks over his notes during Exercise Iron Fist 2020 on San Clemente Island, California on Feb. 6, 2020. US Marine Corps Photo

Prior to the pandemic, the annual bilateral Iron Fist exercise at Camp Pendleton, Calif., took place in January and February to help improve the capability of Japan’s first Amphibious Rapid Deployment Brigade, which stood up in 2019 and will reach full capability next spring. About 310 Japan Ground Self-Defense Force soldiers came to California to operate off USS Pearl Harbor (LSD-52) and USS Portland (LPD-27), with an emphasis on infantry, amphibious assault vehicle, reconnaissance and medical training.

Japan established the ARDB to better position its self-defense forces to thwart off and defend incursions into its 3,000-plus islands — particularly in the southwest, including the disputed Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea.

Later in the year, Marines out of California were involved in fighting historic wildfires up and down the West Coast. In September Marine Wing Support Squadron 373 deployed to support the aerial firefighting mission on the Slink Fire, which spread onto training areas of the Marine Corps Mountain Warfare Training Center north of Yosemite National Park. Later in the month, 7th Engineer Support Battalion under 1st Marine Logistics Group at Camp Pendleton was trained for ground firefighting and divided into strike teams that would be paired with a corpsman and an experienced professional firefighter. The Marines ended up at the August Complex Fire, where they were given extra responsibilities such as protecting a helicopter landing pad from the encroaching fire.

Accidents and Safety

Marine Corps AAV-P7/A1 assault amphibious vehicle driver with Bravo Company, Battalion Landing Team 1/4, 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit, drives an AAV-P7/A1 up the well deck ramp of the amphibious landing dock USS Somerset (LPD 25) during training to increase Navy-Marine Corps interoperability in the eastern Pacific on July 27, 2020. US Navy Photo

Eight Marines and a sailor died when their amphibious assault vehicle sank off the coast of California on July 31.

Fifteen Marines and a sailor from 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit were aboard the AAV that had been training on San Clemente Island and then swam into the water to return to USS Somerset (LPD-25). They reported taking on water, and while eight Marines were recovered immediately – one of whom was pronounced dead at the hospital shortly afterwards – seven Marines and the sailor were still missing.

Submarine support ship HOS Dominator was brought in the next day to assist in the search and rescue, and the Marine Corps paused all AAV operations. By Aug. 2, the Marine Corps declared the missing men presumed dead and transitioned to a recovery operation.

The sunken AAV and human remains were located on Aug. 4 and recovered Aug. 8.

Two investigations were launched – a Naval Safety Center Investigation and a Command/Line of Duty Investigation – and Commandant Berger said at a recent hearing that the command investigation was nearing its conclusion but that it hadn’t reached his desk yet. Still, in October the commander of the battalion landing team was relieved of command.

A Marine KC-130 crash lands in California Sept. 29, 2020.

In Marine Corps aviation, a KC-130 and a F-35B collided in air on Sept. 29 during a mid-air refueling. The F-35B pilot safely ejected. In a feat of fantastic flying, the KC-130 pilot from Marine Aerial Refueler Transport Squadron (VMGR) 352 lost two engines, had a potential fire onboard, had just partial control of the aircraft, and yet landed safely in a farm field and saved all Marines onboard.

An MV-22B Osprey belonging to Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron (VMM) 163, based at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, was extensively damaged while parked at a general aviation airfield near the U.S.-Mexico border. While the aircraft was unattended, a skydiving plane rolled into it, damaging the left engine compartment, wing and landing gear and both propellers.

Marine MV-22B Osprey after being struck by a Twin Otter skydiving plane on May 30, 2020. City of San Diego Photo

In March, two Marine Raiders were killed in northern Iraq while supporting Iraqi Security Forces in the fight against ISIS.

In July, an early morning shooting at Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center Twentynine Palms, Calif., temporarily locked down the training grounds. After investigating, police determined a Marine died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

Top Stories 2020: U.S. Navy Operations

This post is part of a series of stories looking back at the top naval news from 2020. As the U.S. continues to recalculate its strategy to counter Russia and China, naval operations this year focused on maintaining a presence in multiple theaters during a global pandemic. While the Navy continued its sustained carrier presence […]

Boatswain’s Mate (Handling) Airman Oliver Aguirre Torres, from Bloomington, Calif., left, mans the rails as the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71) arrives at Naval Air Station North Island, Calif., on July 9, 2020. US Navy Photo

This post is part of a series of stories looking back at the top naval news from 2020.

As the U.S. continues to recalculate its strategy to counter Russia and China, naval operations this year focused on maintaining a presence in multiple theaters during a global pandemic.

While the Navy continued its sustained carrier presence in the Middle East, the service also conducted operations and exercises throughout the Indo-Pacific region.

Despite a push for the Defense Department to posture itself for the Chinese and Russian threat, this year saw a persistent U.S. Navy presence in the Middle East as a hedge against Iran.

Meanwhile, the service was forced to balance naval operations with the COVID-19 pandemic, with the surface force facing strain after losing an aircraft carrier for almost two months due to a virus outbreak onboard.

The Navy also suffered the high-profile loss of an amphibious warship following a pier-side fire that called into question the service’s maintenance practices.

After the Navy spent much of the year trying to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 onboard its ships while still working to meet its deployment schedules, Navy Secretary Ken Braithwaite recently called for several fleet organizational changes meant to recalculate the service’s efforts to counter Russia and China.

Middle East

Naval Aircrewman (Helicopter) 2nd Class Philip Johnson flies in an MH-60S Knight Hawk, attached to the ‘Dusty Dogs’ of Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron 7, from the aircraft carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN-69) on July 23, 2020. US Navy Photo

The year began with amplified tensions between the U.S. and Iran after the Pentagon struck and killed Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force Commander Qasem Suleimani in an early January drone strike.

Shortly after the strike, the Navy dispatched USS Bataan (LHD-5) and the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit embarked onboard the amphibious assault ship, which was about to drill with Moroccan forces, to the Middle East.

As tensions remained high throughout the year, the Navy kept a consistent carrier presence within U.S. 5th Fleet, as it has done since May 2019.

USS Bataan (LHD-5) transits the Strait of Gibraltar on June 27, 2020. US Navy Photo

USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN-69), which spent nearly seven months at sea without any port calls due to the pandemic, operated in the North Arabian Sea for much of its deployment earlier this year. Meanwhile, USS Nimitz (CVN-68) moved into the Middle East at the end of July to continue the sustained carrier presence as Ike began its trip home.

While Nimitz briefly left 5th Fleet last month to drill with the Indian navy for the Malabar 2020 exercise, the carrier has been operating in the Middle East for most of the last five months.

As of Dec. 22, the U.S. has had 370 days worth of carrier presence in the Middle East – up from 290 days in 2019, according to USNI News carrier deployment data.

The Navy’s continued operations in the Middle East come as the Pentagon seeks to retool its military strategy with an emphasis on the Indo-Pacific region. While the strained relationship between the U.S. and Iran kept the U.S. Navy operating within 5th Fleet throughout 2020, the service also conducted operations meant to function as a hedge against China.

Indo-Pacific

Capt. Michael Langbehn, deputy commander, Carrier Air Wing (CVW) 11, makes his 1,000th arresting gear landing while piloting an F/A-18E Super Hornet, assigned to the “Golden Warriors” of Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 87, on the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71) on May 27, 2020. US Navy Photo

Much of this year’s naval operations saw the service working to maintain deployment schedules while monitoring the COVID-19 pandemic that brought major lockdowns and economic slowdowns to countries across the globe.

As international lockdowns took place, the Navy experienced its own fatal COVID-19 outbreak at the end of March, when aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71) was forced to sit pier side in Guam for almost two months as the crew worked to rid the ship of the virus.

One sailor – Aviation Ordnanceman Chief Petty Officer Charles Robert Thacker Jr. – died from the virus. More than 1,200 sailors aboard the carrier tested positive for COVID-19.

An F-35B Lightning II fighter aircraft with Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron (VMM) 265 (Reinforced), 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU), prepares to take off from the flight deck of amphibious assault ship USS America (LHA-6) on April 18, 2020. US Navy Photo

A Navy amphibious ship helped fill the operational void in the Indo-Pacific region while the carrier was stuck in Guam. In mid-April, as the carrier sought to purge the virus, amphibious assault ship USS America (LHA-6) was operating in the Philippine Sea.

While Theodore Roosevelt battled coronavirus at the pier, Malaysia and China were involved in a standoff in the South China Sea for several weeks over natural resources. Multiple Chinese ships spent weeks following a drillship as it worked for the Malaysian government in the South China Sea.

During the standoff, multiple American warships conducted operations near the drillship, which carried a Panamanian flag. USS Montgomery (LCS-8), USS Gabrielle Giffords (LCS-10), and USNS Cesar Chavez (T-AKE-14) sailed near West Capella for presence operations. Meanwhile, several other American warships – USS Bunker Hill (CG-52), USS Barry (DDG-52) and USS America (LHA-6) – moved through the same waters with the Royal Australian Navy frigate HMAS Parramatta (FFH-154).

The Navy also continued to perform Freedom of Navigation Operations in the South China Sea, as the U.S. sought to maintain a consistent presence in the waters amid tension with China over the COVID-19 pandemic and the Trump administration’s continued criticism of Beijing.

Despite the pandemic, the U.S. Navy and partner nations still participated in the biennial Rim of the Pacific 2020 exercise, but scaled the exercise down to a shorter and smaller version because of COVID-19.

Maintenance

Fire aboard USS Bonhomme Richard (LHD-6) at Naval Base San Diego on July 12, 2020. US Navy Photo

Just days after Theodore Roosevelt returned to San Diego following the COVID-19 outbreak, the Navy experienced another headline-making incident in mid-July, when USS Bonhomme Richard (LHD-6) caught fire during a maintenance phase at the pier in San Diego, Calif. Part of the maintenance period included updating the ship’s systems to accommodate F-35B Joint Strike Fighter Lightning II operations.

The inside of the amphibious assault ship burned for almost five days, leading the Navy to launch several investigations into what caused the fire. Nearly 60 percent of Bonhomme Richard was destroyed during the fire, Rear Adm. Eric Ver Hage, the commander of Navy Regional Maintenance Center and the director of surface ship maintenance and modernization, said last month.

Sailors line up firefighting gear for incoming sailors to don and fight a fire on board the amphibious assault ship USS Bonhomme Richard (LHD-6) at Naval Base San Diego on July 14, 2020. US Navy Photo

After deciding it would be too costly to repair the ship, the Navy last month announced plans to scrap the amphib.

The incident raised questions about the risks ships face during maintenance periods, including potential fires, USNI News reported this year. During ship maintenance phases, fewer sailors work onboard and hot work conducted during maintenance means there is a greater potential for fires.

Speaking to reporters about the service’s decision to decommission Bonhomme Richard, Ver Hage would not comment on the implications for Navy acquisition, but emphasized the current production line at Ingalls Shipbuilding, which builds the America-class amphibious assault ships.

Fleets of the Future

Secretary of the Navy Kenneth Braithwaite visiting HMS Queen Elizabeth at sea off the coast of Flamborough, United Kingdom on Oct. 1, 2020. US Navy Photo

Several years after the Pentagon unveiled a strategy focused on countering Russia and China, the Navy this year forecasted several organizational moves meant to adjust to this policy shift.

Testifying to Congress earlier this month, Braithwaite disclosed the Navy’s plans to change the name of U.S. Fleet Forces Command to U.S. Atlantic Fleet in an effort to emphasize operations in the northern Atlantic and the Russian threat.

“To meet the unique maritime challenges of the Atlantic theater, we will rename Fleet Forces Command as the U.S. Atlantic Fleet, and we will refocus our naval forces in this important region on their original mission: controlling the maritime approaches to the United States and to those of our allies,” Braithwaite told the Senate Armed Services readiness subcommittee.
“The Atlantic Fleet will confront the reassertive Russian Navy, which has been deployed closer and closer to our East Coast, with a tailored maritime presence capability and lethality.”

The move comes as the Navy works to counter the increased Russian presence in the northern Atlantic. The Navy in 2018 revived U.S. 2nd Fleet amid an ongoing concern over Russia’s undersea activities.

Canadian Navy Halifax-class frigate HMCS Ville de Quebec (FFH 332), right, the Los Angeles-class fast-attack submarine USS Montpelier (SSN-765), Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman (CVN-75) and the Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruiser USS Normandy (CG-60) transit in formation on May 31, 2020. US Navy Photo

In addition to combatting the Russian threat, the Navy is also looking for new ways to counter the Chinese in the Indo-Pacific.

Last month, Braithwaite called for a new numbered fleet, U.S. 1st Fleet, which would be responsible for the Indian and Pacific Oceans.

Speaking about the stand-up of a 1st Fleet, Braithwaite emphasized that the U.S. needed to work with regional allies like India to deter China both militarily and economically.

“[T]he Chinese have shown their aggressiveness around the globe. Having just come from the High North (where he previously served as U.S. Ambassador to Norway), Chinese presence in the Arctic is unprecedented,” Braithwaite said last month.
“Most recently I was in a trip to the Far East: every single one of our allies and partners are concerned about how aggressive the Chinese have been. I would argue with anybody that not since the War of 1812 has the United States and our sovereignty been under the kind of pressures that we see today.”