Navy tests look to shake up traditional carrier strike group model

by Vern Evans

When the destroyers The Sullivans and Delbert D. Black deployed in the fall to the eastern Mediterranean Sea, they joined the Gerald R. Ford carrier strike group that was already well into its cruise.

The warships’ arrivals were part of an experiment the Navy is currently undertaking, where it swaps destroyers out mid-deployment, part of a broader concept that U.S. Fleet Forces Command head Adm. Daryl Caudle is spearheading to supplement a carrier strike group with additional destroyers that the strike group did not initially deploy with — a departure from the traditional model.

Ford originally got underway from Naval Station Norfolk in May and encountered multiple extensions, adding up to an extra 76 days at sea in the eastern Mediterranean at the frontlines of the Israel-Hamas conflict.

While the Ford’s initial strike group included the destroyers Ramage, McFaul, and Thomas Hudner, The Sullivans and Delbert D. Black inserted themselves into the strike group so that the original destroyers could return home.

“In large conflict, I’m going to deploy ready-up strike groups,” Caudle told reporters in January. “But eventually, as everybody knows, when you’re on station for a long time on a ship, you got to take a knee. And so as you roll out to take a knee and somebody rolls in, I have to have high confidence that they come in at the right level of training, certification, mastery and the ability to plug and play into that strike group.”

Caudle said in a statement to Navy Times that Fleet Forces is now incorporating lessons from The Sullivans and the Delbert D. Black following their deployments, and noted that the steps taken ahead of time yielded positive signs for the concept.

Before they headed out, the command evaluated the destroyers’ tactical and material status, and then ensured the ships received additional training based on real-world events as part of a task force deployment certification exercise, he said.

The goal is to have more ships ready to respond in the event of crisis, while improving force flexibility worldwide and allowing aircraft carriers to remain deployed for longer periods of time if needed.

Under the Navy’s Optimized Fleet Response Plan, an entire carrier strike group undergoes a three-year maintenance, training and deployment cycle in tandem. This requires carriers, destroyers and cruisers to complete work-ups and certifications together over the course of 36 months.

To detach from this model and allow for a more flexible interchange of destroyers, Caudle said his concept aims to improve “training density” for those replacement ships and get them certified at the contingency response force level, meaning they can flow into combat within 30 days if needed.

“It’s the difference between training to integrate, and integrate to train,” Caudle said. “And so mine is the former — I like to train so that I can integrate.”

How feasible is this plan?

Experts agree the plan offers significant benefits and enhanced flexibility, especially as real world events require the service to navigate increased demands and lengthy deployments around the globe.

Still, they said there are some difficulties that the Navy must hash out to advance this concept — and they argue the concept could be hindered by a lack of surface ships.

“The challenge with it is that the strike groups work up together, and they go through a whole process of becoming familiar with an operating environment and the battle rhythm, and all the expectations,” said Bradley Martin, a senior policy researcher with RAND and retired Navy surface warfare officer. “And so all that has to be replicated. And the ship hasn’t been part of that when it comes in and joins a strike group – it’s going to have to spend some time becoming acclimated.”

To make this plan work and apply it more broadly, experts say the Navy must implement more standardized procedures for aligning combat system settings across the fleet, rather than allowing individual strike groups to craft their own plans, as it has historically done.

These plans must become regulated to ensure that command and control systems are compatible, allowing new players to contribute to the strike group immediately and seamlessly, according to Bryan Clark, a retired submarine officer and director of the Hudson Institute think tank’s Center for Defense Concepts and Technology.

The Navy should conduct an assessment and experimentation of combat system compatibility to ensure that proper understanding of each ship is in place, Clark said.

“That’s another area where the Navy could just work in advance, is to basically understand exactly what the baseline is, and begin to go set up what configuration changes are needed in order for you to plug and play into the strike group, which is going to be like how do you align your systems,” he said.

This standardization would mean that carrier strike groups wouldn’t have such customized combat systems settings, Clark said, and individual strike group commanders would have less control over how their strike group is configured and operated.

It could also mean that strike groups could lose some of their theater-specific specialization.

Whereas operations in the Pacific are more focused on freedom of navigation exercises, the mission set is much more broad for Atlantic-based ships that deploy to the European and Middle Eastern theaters, Clark said.

The need for this adaptability is especially important for the 5th and 6th Fleet area of operations right now, given the confrontation with the Houthis in the Middle East that’s required destroyers like the Carney to shoot down air drones and missiles on a near-daily basis since October.

As a result, swapping out destroyers seamlessly into a new carrier strike group is especially valuable in instances like these so that the ships can reload their weapons, Clark said.

“Because the Middle Eastern and European theaters have such a variety of missions, and real world demands are causing ships to have to get reloaded or brought offline periodically — that’s creating the need for this opportunity, this capability to mix and match destroyers,” Clark said.

Caudle’s plan also focuses on ensuring roughly 100 ships are ready for mobilization at any given time, while roughly 100 are deployed and the remaining 100 undergo maintenance.

Having more ships available is a key component in successfully executing this new concept, according to Bryan McGrath, a former destroyer captain who runs the defense consulting firm FerryBridge Group.

“The flexibility that Caudle needs to employ this plan will be increased by having more ships available,” McGrath said. “This is when you hear the surface force talk about North Star 75. They want the 75 ships. More available ships make Caudle’s idea that much more doable.”

Separate from Caudle’s proposal, then-commander of Naval Surface Forces Vice Adm. Roy Kitchener unveiled a plan in January 2023 to keep 75 surface ships at either “mission capable” or “full mission capable” readiness levels. The Navy said at the time it could accomplish that goal within two years in an attempt to have more ships on hand to respond to crisis — or test out new equipment or concepts in exercises.

What’s next for advancing this concept?

Caudle said in January that introducing new destroyers to the Ford carrier strike group revealed that the framework for executing such a concept didn’t exist, meaning that a training plan and other procedures were developed from scratch.

Still, Caudle told Navy Times the approach that Fleet Forces took ahead of deploying the ships proved effective.

Additionally, the Ford’s replacement ships will provide feedback from their deployments that Fleet Forces can use to improve the “fungibility” of these vessels, Caudle said in January. Both The Sullivans and the Delbert D. Black concluded their time at sea in February.

Leadership from the Ford called the strike group’s transition to fresh destroyers “seamless.”

“I couldn’t visually or tactically discern the difference between the destroyer that just left and went home to do more maintenance or homeport shift, and the one that replaced them,” the Ford’s commanding officer, Capt. Rick Burgess told Navy Times in an interview aboard the carrier in February. “Everyone was really, really capable and fit right in.”

Martin said that he expects the Navy will work to ensure warships are prepared to meet the requirements of this concept, and that it will become “like a new normal.”

“It will be shown that the ability to use the available force structure to optimize presence, but still keep maintenance, readiness intact … is going to be something everybody is going to have to learn how to do effectively,” Martin said.

Such a plan might even help surface combatant readiness, he added because it can help ensure destroyers return home on schedule to get their scheduled maintenance, even if the strike group with which they originally deployed remains on station.

Still, Martin said force structure needs to meet the demand and the plan isn’t sustainable in the long-term unless the Navy’s fleet expands too.

The Navy’s new shipbuilding plan released in March calls for a goal of 381 ships by the year 2042, an increase from the previous target of 373 ships by that time. But, the plan to reach this capacity strongly relies on the industry to eliminate lengthy backlogs and cost overruns — as well as steady Congressional funding.

“Most people would say that the Navy, if it’s going to meet the demand, there need to be more ships,” Martin said. “And getting to that point is obviously not going to happen in the immediate future.”

“But over the long term, I don’t think that optimized scheduling of any kind is going to overcome just a lack of capacity. And I think we’re going to have to deal with that realistically, at some point.”

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