GREGG K. KAKESAKO / GKAKESAKO@STARBULLETIN.COM
Petty Officer Heather Watts and Chief Petty Officer Matthew Blanton, who serve on the USS Port Royal, like the new Navy policy that balances time on deployment with time at home.
Navy adds stability to deployment policy
For the first time in 22 years, the Navy has changed its deployment policy and sailors at Pearl Harbor can expect to spend an equal amount of time at home as they do at sea.
The new policy is meant to preserve the quality of life for Navy families while still meeting national security obligations, Navy officials say.
Pacific Fleet Master Chief Rick West, the senior enlisted sailor in the Pacific, said the change was announced Feb. 27 by Adm. Mike Mullen, chief of naval operations.
If a ship deploys on a routine deployment for six months, its crew can expect to remain in its home operating area for six months before it will deploy again, said West, who has been on nine deployments during his 26 years in the Navy.
"Prior to the Navy's new focus," West said, "the ship that had most recently returned from a deployment was considered the ready ship, ready to deploy at a moment's notice as it was the one geared up and set to go."
If there is an urgent need for a ship to leave before its "dwell time" -- translated to mean time at home -- it would need Mullen's approval.
Petty Officer Heather Watts, a hospital corpsman on the Pearl Harbor-based cruiser USS Port Royal, likes the new policy.
"Knowing exactly how long we will be gone is helpful to me and it is easier for me," said the single mother.
Chief Petty Officer Matthew Blanton, radar and missile operations officer on the Port Royal who has been on three deployments during his 10 years in the Navy, said, "It makes things more predictable for my wife."
The change comes three years after the Navy announced that it might be forced to send warships to sea more often due to the ongoing war on terror.
But there is flexibility in the new policy: If a ship is forced to stay at sea for more than six months, its extension, for no more than another month, has to be approved by Mullen.
By contrast, Army troops are currently deployed for a year, and Marines are away from home for about seven months. However, these combat tours recently were extended in Iraq by several months because of the increase in insurgent activity.
For instance, Schofield Barracks soldiers from the 25th Infantry Division's 3rd Brigade could be forced to spend several more months in Iraq this summer because the Army is stretched beyond its limits.
West, 44, said he "embraces the change. I feel that it is good for the Navy. It does provide predictability for our families. The families are key to our Navy."
West said Navy families and sailors raised concerns about past surges that sent some ships to sea ahead of their normal schedules. However, he also pointed out: "Our families, our sailors realize we are a nation at war. ... They know what they do and they support it."
West, as the top enlisted sailor in the Pacific Fleet, has spent time away from Pearl Harbor meeting with sailors. Last month, he visited six ships home-ported in California.
"The feedback is good," said West, talking about Mullen's new policy. "They want stability. The key is communication so every sailor and family member understands it."
West said Mullen's new policy does away with the 56-day rule, which meant that the deployment clock did not start until a ship was away for 56 days.
"Now any time spent on deployment," West said, "will count as deployed time, even if it is for one day."
Under the old rule, a ship could be away for 56 days, return home for a week and then go out for another 56 days, return again and be out for another 56 days.
Mullen, in his Feb. 27 message, said: "We are deliberately taking action to strike the right balance between our need to provide rotational forward forces, our obligation to prepare forces for major contingencies and crisis, and our time at home."
Mullen said these changes will improve the Navy's ability "in the long war and for major contingencies. At the same time it will preserve our traditional 50 percent time-in-homeport standard, better account for our deployed time and provide the most predictability we can in our deployment and operating schedules."
Units unaffected by Mullen's change include ballistic missile submarines, aviation training and fleet replacement squadrons, military assigned to the Military Sealift Command, units permanently stationed in places like Japan, deployed units with rotating crews, naval mobile construction battalions and cryptological support personnel.