February 13, 2014:
The U.S. Navy is changing its policy on maximum time at sea per cruise. Currently crews can expect to spend up to 10 months on a cruise. That is being changed to eight months. This is part of a continuous process of tweaking policies concerning how much time sailors will spend at sea. This has long been a major crew morale issue.
Back in 2008 the navy adopted a policy of adjusting ship schedules so that crews spend at least half their time in port. This is called "dwell time." With some 60 percent of navy personnel married, time in port is important. The navy also eliminated its decades old policy of regular six month deployments at sea. These deployments were far away and kept sailors cut off from home. The new policy was to keep ships closer to their home port, the better to "surge" a larger number of warships in an emergency. In practice that meant that when ships did go out they might not return for 9-10 months. That was too long for both morale and maintenance.
In the past ships returning from a six month cruise usually required a month or so of maintenance and repairs in port, with a lot of the crew taking leave. Military personnel get 30 days of leave (vacation) each year. Thus ships returning from the old six month cruises were out of action for a month or more. The 2008 policy eliminated most of that and more ships are available all the time. The new 50/50 policy uses a lot of shorter trips to sea. Carriers only go out for a week or two at a time, so their pilots can get some practice. This keeps carriers and their escorts in readiness for long cruises.
This 2008 policy failed when the navy declared that growing tensions with Iran and China required a surge and has been hustling to find sailors and working ships to maintain a strong presence in the Persian Gulf and Western Pacific. The data management systems show maintenance being deferred, spare parts not available to keep a lot of weapons and equipment on ships running, and more and more sailors, especially experienced specialists, deciding that they have been pushed too far for too long and are getting out. Many navy leaders want to cut back on sea time and allocate money saved towards improving maintenance, readiness, and retention (sailors staying in).
Even eight months is pushing it in terms of damage done to morale and maintenance. Some air power analysts believe the U.S. could rely more on land-based aviation and feel that the navy is too hasty in deploying carriers for long periods so that this can help justify the expense of building and maintaining these huge ships and their escorts. In one way long cruises do make legislators (who approve the navy budget) aware that what they are paying for is out there representing. But the realities of morale and maintenance is causing the length of these cruises to shrink.