One significant downside to the U.S. Navy’s nuclear-powered aircraft carriers is that they require a mid-life refueling and complex overhaul, or RCOH.
This requires essentially taking apart the ship to refuel the nuclear reactors, and the overhaul typically takes at least four years. In the case of the USS George Washington (CVN-73), it actually took six years, or more accurately, 2,117 days.
The complex maintenance schedules at HII’s Newport News Shipbuilding facilities lengthened the time required for the procedure, and the effects of the Covid-19 lockdowns in 2020 only further extended the repair period.
Since August 2017, the sixth carrier of the Nimitz class and the fourth U.S. Navy ship named after the nation’s first president, has undergone RCOH. Its systems have been modernized in the process, and the ship’s interior has been refurbished.
“Factors that extended the RCOH included delays and changes in her RCOH planning and induction timeline due to FY15 budgetary decisions to inactivate (vice refuel) this ship; the arrival condition of the ship, which was more challenging than expected, planned or budgeted for, including growth work in significant areas of the RCOH; the requirement to remove critical parts from CVN-73 to support higher-priority, deploying aircraft carriers; and the impact of COVID-19 on the workforce and industrial base,” HII said in a statement to USNI News.
Sea Trials Under Way
In March it was announced that the USS George Washington would be forward-deployed to Japan in 2025, replacing the USS Ronald Reagan. This week, CVN-73 began to prepare for that deployment. The carrier departed the shipyard on Monday and sailed down the James River, heading for the Atlantic Ocean. Over the next several days, the flattop will begin its first round of sea trials.
The USS George Washington’s departure came just days after the U.S. Navy released an extensive report that outlined quality-of-life problems for the crew assigned to the carrier while it was in the shipyard. From August 2017 through April 2022, nine sailors assigned to the carrier died by suicide, prompting the investigation.
U.S. Fleet Forces Commander Adm. Daryl Caudle said the Navy neglected to account for how an almost two-year extension of the maintenance period would affect the crew aboard. Unlike carriers and submarines under construction, which essentially belong to the shipyard until they are delivered to the Navy, carriers that undergo an RCOH are still technically in service, and the ship’s crew plays a major role at the shipyard during the maintenance period.
The Navy’s investigation, released on Thursday, found that junior sailors assigned to the George Washington were subject to some of the toughest living conditions in the military. The sailors had to endure up to three-hour commutes, as well as isolation from their family and peers during the RCOH.
“We got ourselves into a space that we were just not ready to understand what can happen with this length of overrun,” said Cadule.
Moreover, it was found that Navy leadership had focused more on the effects of the material condition of the carrier and the delays rather than the effects of an extended maintenance period on the crew, Naval Air Force Atlantic Commander Rear Adm. John Meier said in his endorsement of the investigation, USNI News further reported.
“We failed to stop and account for the true costs of this process on our sailors. … We understand the ‘stuff’ and we can quantify it, test it, improve upon it, and master it almost to the level to where it becomes predictable. This is the area in which we are most comfortable,” wrote Meier. “While extremely important, it pales in comparison to how we take care of the people.”
The next carrier slated for a mid-life overhaul, the USS John C. Stennis (CVN-74), has been at Newport News shipbuilding since May 2021. This time, the hope is that it won’t face any further delays – while the Navy will assure that it directs resources to the crew’s wellbeing.
CVN-73’s Career Spotlight
The USS George Washington (CVN-73) was laid down in August 1986 and was officially commissioned into the Navy on July 4, 1992. Just two years later, then-President Bill Clinton and First Lady Hillary Clinton led an entourage of the nation’s leaders on June 5, 1994, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the D-Day landings in Normandy, France. Off the coast of Normandy, Clinton cast a wreath into the waters of the English Channel in honor of men lost at sea during the landings.
Later that year, the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier, which could carry up to 90 aircraft, was dispatched to the Persian Gulf, where it took part in Operation Vigilant Warrior to protect Kuwait from a second invasion by Iraq. Joined by the amphibious assault ship USS Tripoli (LPH-10), along with 2,000 Marines of the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit, the arrival of the carrier convinced Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein to withdraw his Republican Guard Forces. In November of 1994, Iraq officially recognized an independent Kuwait.
Following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York City and the Pentagon, the USS George Washington, along with the carriers USS John F. Kennedy (CV-67) and USS John C. Stennis (CVN-74), was deployed to protect the United States from potential attacks. CVN-73 was stationed as a protector of New York City and the East Coast. The USS George Washington was later one of several Navy vessels that participated in disaster relief after the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami. The flattop departed Japan in 2015 following a 10-day turnover period with the newer USS Ronald Reagan (CVN-76).
In 2025, the USS George Washington will be headed back to Japan.
Author Experience and Expertise: A Senior Editor for 19FortyFive, Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer. He has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers, and websites with over 3,200 published pieces over a twenty-year career in journalism. He regularly writes about military hardware, firearms history, cybersecurity, politics, and international affairs. Peter is also a Contributing Writer for Forbes and Clearance Jobs. You can follow him on Twitter: @PeterSuciu.