‘Setback’ For World’s Biggest Aircraft Carrier’s Crew; US Direct Gerald R. Ford To Stay Put Near The Warzone

As Israel’s conflict with Hamas intensifies, US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has directed the USS Gerald R. Ford aircraft carrier and one additional vessel to stay in the Mediterranean Sea for a few more weeks, which means no Christmas for its crew at home. 

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This would be the third extension of the Ford’s deployment, highlighting the ongoing concerns about instability in the region in the wake of Israel’s war against Gaza.

The last extension to the carrier’s deployment came in November this year. The USS Gerald R. Ford aircraft carrier strike group was first deployed to the region in May to replace the George H.W. Bush CSG  in the wake of Russo-Ukraine hostilities.

The carrier was dispatched to the Eastern Mediterranean to be stationed near Israel’s coast, just days after the country came under an unprecedented terror attack by Hamas on October 7. Israel has since launched a massive bombing campaign accompanied by ground operations in the Gaza Strip.

A statement published by CENTCOM in October read, “The United States has begun moving USS Gerald R. Ford Carrier Strike Group to the Eastern Mediterranean. This includes the US Navy aircraft carrier USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN-78), the Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruiser USS Normandy (CG 60), as well as the Arleigh-Burke-class guided missile destroyers USS Thomas Hudner (DDG 116), USS Ramage (DDG 61), USS Carney (DDG 64), and USS Roosevelt (DDG 80).”

The USS Gerald R. Ford is widely regarded as the United States’ most technologically advanced aircraft carrier. It is the world’s largest ship as it boasts impressive dimensions, measuring approximately 1,092 feet (333 meters) in length, with a beam of 256 feet (78 meters) at its flight deck and a height of 250 feet (76 meters).

Currently, two US aircraft carriers are deployed in the region – USS Gerald R. Ford and USS Dwight D Eisenhower, which joined Ford a few days later. Although they have not yet been made public, many US officials confirmed the extended deployments agreed this week for the Ford and the USS Normandy cruiser on the condition of anonymity. 

It has been roughly seven and a half months (or 227 days) since the carrier strike group was deployed. However, the United States has given extensions to carrier deployments since December 2021, ever since there were fears about a Russian invasion of Ukraine.

For instance, the George H.W. Bush Carrier Strike Group was deployed for eight months, and the Harry S. Truman Carrier Strike Group was deployed for nine months.

Initially, the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower aircraft carrier strike group was supposed to replace the Ford in the region. On October 17, however, spokesperson Sabrina Singh stated in a Pentagon briefing that Austin had decided to extend Ford’s mission and directed both Eisenhower and Ford to patrol the waterways between southern Europe and the Middle East.

The recent extension, however, comes after Israel’s defense minister Yoav Gallant said that it will take months to destroy Hamas, hinting that the hostilities are not expected to end soon, and it will be a drawn-out war.

Israeli commanders reiterated their will to continue fighting until Hamas is destroyed during a meeting with US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan. The goal of the meeting was to discuss a timeline for ending the war in Gaza as the calls for a ceasefire intensify. Israel has refused to end hostilities, and being Tel Aviv’s staunchest ally, the US has vetoed a ceasefire. 

Considering that Hamas lacks the resources to continue the fight it started by crossing into Israel, the enormous deployment may seem excessive. However, the US has projected this as a measure required to prevent any regional escalation of the conflict, especially as regional militias like the Houthis carry out missile and drone attacks on commercial ships intermittently.

Several military watchers have observed that the US deployment of carriers and expanding naval forces in the region began as a measure to project power and deter adversaries from carrying out aggressive actions. The goals have shifted as Iran-backed militias continue to hit back with full power.

Having said that, the extension given to the deployment of Ford comes at a time when the service is downsizing the crew aboard the mammoth vessel.

Ford Is Shedding Over 500 Sailors Amid Shortage

America’s newest aircraft carrier, the USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN-78), has significantly reduced the number of sailors on board due to a severe shortage of sailors in the service, Forbes said in a recent report. The cuts, according to the report, are deep and dramatic.

About 500–600 sailors have left the USS Ford over the last six months to a year without being replaced. The USS Ford has shed so many crew members that it is currently below the original Acquisition Program Baseline target of 2,391 billets for the Ford-class Carrier Program—a goal set back in 2004 and was deemed unrealistic by many observers. The ship’s company comprises the core crew members that operate the vessel.

The USS Ford is currently “home to approximately 4,070 sailors: 2,380 ship’s company, 1,550 assigned to Carrier Wing EIGHT, and 140 embarked with Carrier Strike Group TWELVE and Destroyer Squadron TWO staff,” according to an email purportedly from the carrier’s commanding officer, Captain Rick Burgess. That indicates a significant drop in the carrier’s crew.

USS Gerald R. Ford - Wikipedia
USS Gerald R. Ford – Wikipedia

The former commander of the carrier, Captain Paul Lanzilotta, led a much bigger crew of between 4,600 and 4,700 sailors through a brief shakedown tour just a year ago. He told Naval News that “the crew assigned to the ship is 2,700 personnel.” That is the company of the ship alone. On top of that, the airwing brings on another 1,700 personnel.

According to the Navy’s “Fact File,” the regular crew, air wing, and staff complement the Ford-class aircraft carriers should be approximately 4,539 sailors. This number falls between 5,000 and 5,200 sailors aboard the older Nimitz-class aircraft carriers. 

However, following the alleged crew reductions, the USS Ford appears to be operating with a crew that is 20% smaller than a fully staffed historic Nimitz class carrier, living up to the marketing hype. There seems to be an abnormally low complement at the moment.