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For the first time since 2007, there's not a US Navy aircraft carrier sailing through the waters of the Middle East. That is not by design, of course. But it is a side-effect of the Navy's current carrier lineup, which includes ten of the hulking flattops.

The Navy's global strategy is predicated on the idea of an 11-carrier navy. But since the USS Enterprise was retired in 2011, the sailing service has been down to just ten ships. It may not sound like a big deal, but as evidenced by the carrier-less Persian Gulf, it is.

"The Navy is operating at a [carrier] deficit," Assistant Secretary of the Navy Sean J. Stackley said during a House Armed Services Committee Seapower Subcommittee hearing, reports. That's led to longer deployments for the remaining ten carriers and has put the Navy "in place where we're a little bit behind the power curve. What we're trying to do now is to reset in stride."

Forcing ships into longer deployments obviously has a dramatic impact on the amount of maintenance and repair work required. Four of the Navy's ten carriers are undergoing "deep maintenance," reports. Another ship, the USS George Washington, was returning from South America to undergo maintenance/repair work.

The most troubling part of this story is that it's going to be a long time before things can get better. The Enterprise's replacement, the USS Gerald R. Ford, won't be ready to deploy until 2021, provided there are no further delays (which we wouldn't bet on).

"There's no doubt that being at 10 exacerbated by the fact that the Ford won't be now deployable until [2021]," program executive officer for aircraft carriers Rear Admiral Thomas Moore testified. "The law says, you have to be 11 carriers, but it's only measured by when we commission Ford...We'll be in a period of 10 carriers here until about 2021."

Fortunately for the Navy, while this deficit will likely last at least until 2021, it probably won't be repeated as further Nimitz-class carriers are replaced by their Ford-class successors. The next two ships in the class, the USS John F. Kennedy and USS Enterprise (the ninth USN ship to bear the name), are moving along briskly. JFK is already under construction, while work on the Enterprise will kick off in the next couple years, with both ships joining the active-duty fleet before the end of the next decade, save any construction/budgetary delays. That's likely when the two oldest Nimitz-class ships, the class' lead ship and the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower, will be decommissioned.

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