The U.S. Navy has gone though many changes since the 1990s, few of them good and, until recently, not very obvious to the outsider. Until the 2020 covid19 epidemic, the navy was able to keep its ships appearing well taken care of, even though years of overwork had led to visibly tired crews and insufficient time, and money to do required maintenance. More ships were quietly restricted in what they could do until they could spend some time in a shipyard to make up for years of delaying maintenance. Any ship that spends a lot of time (100-150 days a year) at sea creates wear and tear on many key components, and the crew. The lack of internal maintenance was not apparent because fresh coats of paint made the ships, and their exhausted crews, appear well-cared for.
That façade disappeared in in 2020 when the navy decided the best way to keep crews from catching covid19 was to keep them at sea longer than ever before. Since then, four ships spent over 200 days at sea, and fleet in general spent more time at sea since World War II and the Vietnam War. The visible evidence of excessive time at sea is rust on the hull. Normally ships return to port often enough to scrape the hull and repaint. While in port the crew has much less to do and keeping the ship looking good was always a point of personal pride in the crew.
Any navy that does not spend a lot of time at sea and still shows visible rust is very short of manpower or competent leadership. Before now the most visible example of that was the much diminished (since 1991) Russian fleet which tried to maintain a record number of warships in the East Mediterranean to support their forces in Syria. Many of these ships showed visible signs of rust. For decades American sailors and naval attaches (assigned to embassies) could assess the general quality of a foreign fleet by looking for visible rust. Indirectly, the decline of the Russian fleet played a role in what is happening to the American warships now.
In the 1990s, with the sudden disappearance of the Russian (Soviet Union) navy, the U.S. Navy had no major threats and plenty of time for maintenance and shore leave. Fearing budget reductions if too many ships were visibly idle, navy leadership cast about for situations that could justify sending warships out, just in case. Iran and North Korea obliged, becoming more of a threat by sponsoring overseas terrorism and developing ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons. Iran excelled at supporting more violence, especially in the Middle East. North Korea reduced its terrorist support and finally managed to build crude but very real nuclear weapon by 2017. North Korea was also building more and better ballistic missiles that could hit targets throughout the Pacific. This led the U.S. Navy ships to spend a lot of time off North Korea because only the U.S. navy has ships equipped with a proven ABM (anti-ballistic missile) system. Iran got involved with major conflicts in Syria and Yemen that required American warships to help reduce Iranian smuggling of weapons and other supplies.
By the late 1990s it was obvious that China was modernizing its armed forces and that included a historical first; long-term plans to create the first ever Chinese high-seas fleet. Those plans didn’t cause much alarm in the west at first but two decades later the Chinese have more warships in service than the United States and far more of the Chinese ships are of recent construction and devoid of visible rust.
The U.S. Navy did notice and since 2001 found themselves with more work than they could handle. First there was the war on terror which required a lot of aircraft carriers in the Indian Ocean to provide air support for operations in landlocked Afghanistan. Unlike past wars (World War II and Vietnam) the navy did not get a major budget boost. Most of the additional money went to the army and marines, which were doing most of the fighting and suffering nearly all the casualties.
All this renewed activity meant more of the U.S. Navy was transferred to the Pacific. To the public this was often obvious only because of major reorganization announcements. For example, in late 2016 the U.S. Navy’s Third Fleet returned to the West Pacific. This was the first time the U.S. Third Fleet had sent warships into the Western Pacific since late 1945. That was when the Third Fleet was deactivated. It was reactivated in 1973 to look after the eastern and northern Pacific Ocean areas including the Bering Sea, Alaska, the Aleutian Islands and a sector of the Arctic. During the nearly three years (1943-45) it existed during World War II, it was responsible for naval operations in the Central Pacific as far west as the China coast and the South China Sea.
Since late 1945 the Seventh Fleet, based in Japan, controlled American naval operations in the West Pacific. But by 2016 the Third Fleet took charge of western portions of the Central and South Pacific while Seventh Fleet the deals with North Korea, northern China and Russia. What brought the Third Fleet back was the need to carry out more FONOPS (freedom of navigation operations) in the South China Sea. This was necessary to assure freedom of movement through international waters that some nations considered off-limits. China protested but did not oppose the American destroyers carrying out the FONOPS. These operations are needed to affirm that many of the Chinese claims to the entire South China Sea are invalid, and assure the right to free passage through China’s EEZ (Exclusive Economic Zone),. By international law (a 1994 treaty), the waters 360 kilometers from land are considered the EEZ, of the nation controlling the nearest land. The EEZ owner can control who fishes there, and extracts natural resources (mostly oil and gas) from the ocean floor. But the EEZ owner cannot prohibit free passage, or the laying of pipelines and communications cables. The U.S. Navy conducts dozens of these FONOPS each year worldwide and now most of them are in the South China Sea.
The expansion of Third Fleet operating areas was no surprise. In 2012 the U.S. announced that it would have 60 percent of its 270 warships in the Pacific by the end of the decade. Actually, this is just a continuation of a process that began when the Cold War ended in 1991. But these changes move slowly. Largely this is the result of political problems that arise when you try to transfer the home ports where the ships are when not at sea, and where the families of the crews live and spend their money. This caused political problems in the United States because many home ports moved from the East Coast to the West Coast. The politicians representing states on the east coast raise a major stink when the navy tries to move the home ports. It took the navy a decade to muster the political clout to make the changes happen. Meanwhile, more and more ships based in east coast ports were serving temporarily in the Pacific or Middle East.
There have been other major changes. In 2006 the U.S. Navy eliminated the Atlantic Fleet, after a century of existence. First established in 1906, the Atlantic Fleet was the first, world class, high seas, naval force from the Americas. At the time there was fear that Germany's ambitious warship building program might someday endanger the United States. The Atlantic Fleet did go to war with the Germans in 1917, and again in 1941.
After 1945, the Atlantic Fleet remained a mighty force, in preparation for a potential battle with the growing naval power of the Soviet Union. But when the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, their fleet wasted away within a decade. At that point the American Atlantic Fleet no longer had a major opponent. Meanwhile, China, North Korea, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Iran provided plenty of work for the Pacific Fleet, which normally supplied ships for Middle East and South Asian emergencies.
The Pacific Fleet still had a full plate after 1991, so the Pacific Fleet remained. The Atlantic Fleet was actually renamed, and reorganized, into the U.S. Fleet Forces Command, which will be responsible for the training, maintenance, and operation of naval forces (ships, aircraft, and land installations) on both coasts. The Pacific Fleet will still stand ready to deal with potential problems in Asia.
Actually, the Atlantic Fleet did have its name changed once before, in 1922, to "Commander Scouting Force." It was changed back to Atlantic Fleet in 1941, just in time to fight the Germans once more. But the Russians are not expected to be a naval threat again, at least not any time soon.
For most of the past century, the Atlantic and Pacific Fleets were basically the two major components of the U.S. Navy and each developed unique customs. Sailors would often spend their entire careers in one fleet or the other. But when one was transferred, it was immediately apparent, once the transferred sailor arrived at the new location, that the two fleets were quite different. From now on, however, there will be the Pacific Fleet and "the rest of the navy."
Since the 1990s another serious problem emerged, the U.S. Navy had lost its ability to design and build new ships or affordable ships of any type. This was linked to the United States tolerating the loss of the American ship building business to Europe in the 1960s and Pacific nations (Japan, South Korea and China) in the late 20th century. The U.S. no longer had a lot of civilian ship yards that could also provide maintenance facilities for warships or, with some additional investment, build warships. The navy procurement bureaucracy lost its ability to impose cost and construction standards on the small number of shipyards capable of building large warships. For China is was just the opposite and that’s why China has more warships than the United States. China also has problems with personnel, but these are different than what the U.S. Navy suffers from. China has no tradition of a fleet that sends many ships long distances on a regular basis. As a result, few Chinese want to join the navy when there are challenging and well-paid jobs in the modernized army and air force.
Too much time at sea is a uniquely American problem. U.S. warships regularly go to sea for three to six months (or more) at a time. Even with the family at a nearby foreign home port and some limited access to the Internet while at sea, too many days a year at sea has made it difficult for the navy to keep needed personnel.
Several solutions were tried and most failed. After 2001 and for about fifteen years the navy used the "Sea Swap" program. By 2004 it was declared a success as the navy got about ten percent more use from its warships. Sea Swap changed crews, instead of bringing ships home. After a crew has been deployed in a distant area for about six months, instead of bringing it back to its home port in the United States, a replacement crew was flown out so that the original crew could be flown back. For warships in the Western Pacific or Persian Gulf, it takes about 45 days for a ship to steam back to the United States. While the crews have to be brought back every six months (except in wartime), the ships can stay out there for at least a year, and sometimes two years. Ships only have to come back for major maintenance that requires special facilities and technical staff. The Sea Swap program was used mainly for destroyers (with crews of about 350 sailors each) and some coastal patrol boats in the Persian Gulf (with 30 sailors each.) The crews literally swap ships, with the crew flying back to the United States taking over the ship of the same class they just handed over to the new crew overseas. With Sea Swap, the navy could keep the same number of ships "on station", patrolling an overseas area, but with fewer ships overall since ships will spend much less time traveling back and forth to the United States. In the long-term Sea Swap made it easier to accumulate more maintenance problems for ships, and by 2016 Sea Swap was dropped as the navy found the wear and tear on ships a more immediate and still unresolved problem. Then came the long covid19 deployments and the rust. Some long-term problems suddenly became very visible.