The aircraft carrier USS Nimitz returns to its home port at Naval Base Kitsap Sunday, ending a record-setting, 11-month overseas deployment during the worst of the coronavirus pandemic. As its crew disembarks in Bremerton for the first time in 340 days — the longest overseas mission by an aircraft carrier since World War II — the sailors and Marines can be proud of both their victory over COVID-19 and their ship’s operations from the South China Sea to the Persian Gulf and back.
However, the 99,000-mile voyage of the Nimitz and its four escort ships also conveys a somber warning over the uncertain state of the U.S. Navy’s aging carrier fleet in a time of enduring volatility in the Middle East and rising tensions with China.
The eruption of COVID-19 aboard sister ship USS Theodore Roosevelt last March infected nearly 700 of its crewmen and derailed that carrier’s ongoing western Pacific deployment. In response, Navy officials ordered a quarantine of the Nimitz’s crew beginning April 1 that effectively added a month to the deployment before the ship got underway. The combination of crew isolation before departure, strict social distancing measures throughout the cruise and severely controlled “pier visits” in lieu of traditional liberty ashore in three safe ports — Guam, Bahrain and Oman — led the carrier strike group to remain COVID-free for the entire mission.
“These young men and women worked tirelessly to incorporate mitigations that ensured the health, safety and readiness of the crews,” Rear Admiral James A. Kirk, commander of the Nimitz strike group, told reporters on Feb. 26. “They made important contributions to the security and stability in both the Middle East, Africa, and Western Pacific during a period of tension and transitions. I am immensely proud of this team and all that they accomplished during this unprecedented deployment.”
Kirk spoke after the Nimitz and its four escorts reached San Diego, where the 1,700 members of Carrier Air Wing 17 disembarked to return to their shore bases. This included Electronic Attack Squadron 139 based at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island. The Nimitz then traveled up the West Coast and moored at Indian Island near Port Hadlock on Thursday for several days to offload ordnance.
In addition to being a testament to the steadfast performance of its combined ship and air wing crew of 4,500 amid the pandemic, the Nimitz’s 2020-21 deployment underscored the continuing central role of the aircraft carrier in projecting U.S. naval power overseas. Operating both in the western Pacific and in the Middle East, the Nimitz’s performance added a new chapter to the 46-year-old warship’s storied history. But three decades after the end of the Cold War, that deployment also confirmed the seemingly intractable tensions that have confronted the United States in several overseas hot spots since then.
A spike in tensions with Iran following the U.S. drone strike killing of Iranian Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani on Jan. 3, 2020, prompted the dispatch of the carrier to the Persian Gulf. While operating in that restricted waterway, aircrews of Carrier Air Wing 17 also carried out 266 combat sorties against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Also, with tensions steadily rising with China over Beijing’s claim to the South China Sea, the Nimitz on both the outbound and return legs of this cruise conducted multiple “dual carrier” operations in the South China Sea, first with the Theodore Roosevelt and then with the Japan-based carrier USS Ronald Reagan. Navy officials described the moves as routine training — but left unsaid was the message to Beijing that the Navy is prepared to operate in those contested waters in full strength.
For the Navy in general and the Nimitz in particular, neither of those two missions signaled the opening of a new area of operations. The carrier has been no stranger to the north Arabian Sea or the South China Sea. The Nimitz returned to Norfolk after a much-extended third overseas deployment aimed at tensions with Iran — 41 years ago on May 26, 1980. When a flare-up in tensions between Taiwan and mainland China prompted the Pentagon to shift the carrier from the Middle East to the South China Sea, the Nimitz became the first aircraft carrier to transit the Taiwan Strait in two decades — 25 years ago this month in 1996.
Finally, two aspects of this latest deployment serve as a stark warning to the U.S. Navy at the dawn of a troubling decade.
First, the extended Nimitz deployment occurred in large part because the Navy’s fleet of 11 aircraft carriers has been stretched to the breaking point from a decade of overuse, a situation that has worsened in the last three years. Maintenance delays due to the spike in carrier operations overseas have further exacerbated the situation to the point that a Nov. 11 report by the U.S. Naval Institute News Service revealed only five of the eleven flattops could be available for response to an overseas emergency.
Cap. Max Clark, Nimitz’s commanding officer, bluntly confirmed the shortage of available carriers in an interview last month with The Kitsap Sun: “The crew knew from the beginning how important it was to stay healthy, because for a while there was Nimitz, and that was it,” Clark said. “For a while there, we said, ‘If it’s not Nimitz, it’s nobody.’ ” While COVID-19 added a month to the Nimitz’s scheduled deployment, the shortage of available replacements drove the service to extend the mission by two more.
Second, a growing number of naval strategists are warning that rising tensions with Beijing in the South China Sea could easily spark a war that — they warn — the U.S. Navy today may be ill-prepared to fight. Instead of solely confronting the U.S. Pacific Fleet with a mirror-image navy, China over the past several decades has armed itself with advanced anti-ship ballistic and cruise missiles and is thought by some experts to be preparing offensive cyberwar capabilities that could overwhelm the matrix of sensors and communications networks essential to American sea power.
For sailors seeing the end of their deployment at long last, their thoughts were far removed from the debate over naval shipbuilding priorities and emerging foreign threats. When Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III visited the carrier off California on Feb. 25, Nimitz crewman Petty Officer 2nd Class Fidel Hart told a New York Times reporter of his plans: “I will take a walk in the forest,” Hart said. “I want to hear birds chirp. I want to smell flowers. I want to hear a river flow.”