Navy jets are again at the tip of the spear, striking targets inside Iraq. But they had to break off air support operations over Afghanistan to do it, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jon Greenert said.

President Obama signaled last week that the mission over Iraq would be a “long-term project” but did not set a specific timeline for U.S. operations there.

Fleet leaders and sources who spoke to Navy Times say the impact of this new mission on sailors should be limited for now, but that could change. Greenert told a group of sailors in Bangor, Washington, on Aug. 6 that the fleet has the forces it needs to fill current demands.

“We’re where we need to be with our forces deployed around the world,” he said. “For right now, we’re distributed just fine, with the right capabilities in place.

“We were where it mattered, when it mattered, when it happened,” he said. “They said, ‘We need air cover now. We need intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance now.’ The George Bush was just two days away, they were just outside the Arabian Gulf doing support operations for Afghanistan, doing close air support. ... They stopped their sorties, went into the Arabian Gulf and are now providing the overflights requested.”

The break in Navy air cover over Afghanistan means that commanders are having to fill the gap with other assets in country, experts said, but that’s a temporary solution as the U.S. draws down there.

“They are going to eventually have to ween the effort in Iraq off of carrier-based aircraft,” said Bryan Clark, a retired Navy commander who is now a defense expert with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington, D.C. “It’s going to have to go to land-based aircraft and take the carrier back around [to the Arabian Sea]. Because as they continue the retrograde from Afghanistan they are going to want to continue to shrink the ground footprint, which means they need to start depopulating air bases such as Bagram.”

Clark said the mission in Iraq will likely go to the Air Force, but that effort would require countries like Turkey, Qatar, Bahrain or Kuwait to allow sorties to be flown from their air bases. In the past, Gulf states have been hesitant to allow such missions to go forward for fear of the political consequences.

If that happens, Clark said, the mission could fall to an already stretched Navy.

“There is a distinct possibility that the Carl Vinson either goes on deployment early or the Bush stays on station longer,” he said.

Upsetting the balance

The Iraq mission comes at a time when the Navy is straining to rein in unpredictable and ever-longer deployments while increasing dwell time for maintenance and training.

Renewed combat operations in Iraq threaten to upset the delicate balance struck by fleet planners before it even takes root if Pentagon leaders can’t arrange deals with regional powers to support a long-term air presence over Iraq.

The optimized fleet response plan, championed by Fleet Forces Command head Adm. Bill Gortney, has sailors deploying for eight months during a 36-month cycle, and promises about 68 percent dwell time. The lead strike group in the plan will be the carrier Harry S. Truman when it deploys next year and relieves the Carl Vinson, scheduled to leave at the end of August on a roughly nine-month cruise.

One thing that could upset the time line for OFRP is a request from U.S. Central Command for a second carrier to support Afghanistan. There is no indication that the Navy would be forced to provide a second carrier, and Pentagon spokesman Army Col. Steve Warren said Aug. 12 that he was “not aware” of any such request for a second carrier.

Still, renewed combat operations demonstrates the fragility of the Navy’s plan to reset its deployment schedule in a world where the next crisis is always just around the corner.

“This is a perfect example of how the Navy’s best intentions with OFRP could be scuttled by world events,” Clark said.

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