July 29, 2012: The U.S. is sending another carrier task force to the Persian Gulf, and the ships are heading out four months early and will stay at sea for eight months instead of four. There are already two carrier task forces in the Gulf area and for a short while there will be three, when the third task force arrives in five months.
This is what the U.S. Navy describes as "surge capability" (getting the maximum number of ships to a war or hot sport in the shortest possible time). It's a new policy, getting a workout here because of rising tensions in the Persian Gulf.
It all began eight years ago, after a massive surge for the invasion of Iraq. This caused several problems, one of them being a dip in morale. So the navy decided it had to keep ships at sea less often. That's because the ships need more time in port for maintenance and the more you keep the ships at sea (especially for more than four months at a time), the more sailors decide to leave the navy.
For the 2003 Iraq campaign the navy sent 72 percent of the combat fleet (221 of 306 warships, including seven of twelve carriers, 75 percent of the amphibious ships, and 33 of 54 attack submarines). There were 600 navy (and marine) warplanes involved and over 100,000 sailors and marines. But this was done in the midst of the navy's usual (for several decades) routine of six month cruises followed by six months in port. The navy got so many ships and aircraft into the Iraqi campaign by skipping scheduled maintenance, keeping sailors at sea for very long periods, and basically improvising. This meant that when the Iraq operation was over, the navy had more than half its ships out of action for months as maintenance for ships and rest for crews was caught up on.
So the navy went and reorganized itself for better surging next time around. Since 2004, ships spend less time at sea on a regular basis, which saves a lot of money. But this makes it possible for the navy to surge, with less stress, nearly 80 percent of its ships and warplanes. Moreover, the navy has bought thousands of smart bombs and retrained its pilots to concentrate on delivering them instead of unguided "dumb bombs." For example, a carrier based F-18 can carry two dozen (or more) of the 250 pound (114 kg) SDB (small diameter bomb). The SDB is more accurate than current smart bombs, can penetrate a meter (3.1 feet) of concrete, and, in most cases, can destroy a target that currently requires the attention of a 2,000 pound smart bomb. Thus fewer sorties are needed from carriers to destroy a larger number of targets. The SBD entered service in 2006, but larger smart bombs and existing missiles had already reduced the workload for carrier aircraft. This put less stress on the ships, aircraft, and sailors that have to make it all work.
The navy now schedules the ship maintenance to take place more often, not saved up for several months when, under the old system, the ships would be in port all the time. A modern warship has thousands of mechanical and electronic systems that have to eventually be replaced. While at sea you can do without some of them (because of redundancy) or patch them together enough to keep them going for a few more weeks or months. But eventually those motors, elevators, pumps, radar sets, radios, and electrical systems need replacement or overhaul. Rescheduling the maintenance, and using more electronic diagnostic systems that more accurately predict when systems will fail, makes it possible to keep a ship available for action more frequently.