By Hal Burnton/The Seattle Times
EVERETT – Admiral Christopher Sweeney is a resident of the east coast of Maryland who, as a boy, was taken to the Chesapeake Bay in a boat called the Striper Swiper to a rockfish nook.
Earlier this year, he arrived on his first tour of Puget Sound to command the Carrier Strike Group 11, a force of planes and ships spread across bases stretching from Whidbey Island, Washington, to San Diego.
Strike group combat aircraft, electronic warfare growlers, helicopters, destroyers, cruisers and carriers are mainstays of the US Navy. It helps maintain the intense pace of the Navy’s global operations, which last year included an epidemic spread of the strike group – led by Major USS Nimitz – into the Pacific, the Middle East and off the coast of East Africa, which has kept the crew away. From families for more than 11 months.
Next year, the strike group is expected to return to the sea on a new mission. Sweeney says he doesn’t yet know where the strike group will go, although he has an idea of the departure date, which has not been publicly announced beforehand.
“Who knows,” Sweeney said, “maybe they’ll call me tomorrow and say go faster…that would be cool.”
Sweeney is leading the strike group at a time of renewed great-power competition, which intensified earlier this year when China placed models of US aircraft carriers for target training in the desert, according to a report from the US Naval Institute.
The Defense Department spends billions annually to expand and modernize a fleet to meet the challenges of the 21st century in which China now controls the world’s largest fleet of combat power ships.
There is also an urgent need to preserve older ships, such as the nuclear-powered Nimitz, and to staff them entirely with trained officers and enlisted personnel. The dangers of default in these tasks became starkly apparent in 2017.
That year, the Navy had four serious accidents, including two collisions at sea that resulted in the deaths of 17 sailors and hundreds of millions of dollars in damage to ships. An internal Navy review cited crew fatigue and burnout, as well as training deficiencies, as contributing factors.
Earlier this year, a report by the Government Accountability Office found that the Navy still routinely assigns fewer crew members to ships than workload studies determined were necessary to operate safely. That study also included surveys indicating that most deployed sailors still don’t get enough sleep.
Sweeney was involved in some investigations into the series of incidents.
He served as the Navy’s liaison officer for two families of the 10 sailors who died on August 21, 2017, when the aircraft carrier USS John McCain collided with a tanker in a crowded area of water east of the Strait of Malacca. A Navy investigation placed much of the blame on commanders’ oversight, and poor training that led to crew errors, while an investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board also pointed to a touchscreen navigation system that increased the potential for operator errors.
Most recently, Sweeney led a Navy Command investigation into the July 30, 2020, sinking of an amphibious assault vehicle, killing nine service members as they returned to USS Somerset from a training exercise off San Clemente Island, California. This investigation, along with separate investigations by the Marine Corps, cited poor maintenance and inadequate training as two reasons.
Sweeney said his heart was “filled with grief” over the loss of life.
While preparing for group exercises, he said, while “you want to push hard” during drills, safety should be a priority so sailors aren’t hurt.
In discussions with the war commander of the strike group, he checks whether the ships are properly manned and whether the crew is ready to head out to sea so that he can assess readiness and assess the risks to his strength and mission.
The Navy has a formidable presence in the Puget Sound, with salaries that include more than 25,000 military and over 20,000 civilians. In addition to Naval Station Everett, there is Naval Base Kitsap, Naval Magazine Indian Island, and Naval Air Station Whidbey Island.
Their existence is not without controversy. It has only been ramped up in recent years amid the expansion of 33 aircraft of the EA-18G Growler fleet based on Whidbey Island.
Operations in a field near Coupeville have nearly quadrupled, and marine critics have criticized for ignoring the public health and wildlife effects of the Growler’s aircraft noise. In 2019, state Attorney General Bob Ferguson filed a lawsuit, claiming that the Navy’s environmental review failed to fully measure the effects of the expansion, and that it violated federal law.
Sweeney, whose offensive group includes Groler’s squadrons, said he could not comment on the pending lawsuit. He is well aware of the noise of aircraft, since he made them “basically land on my head” as he berthed in quarters below an aircraft carrier’s landing strip.
“We’re not going to fix the rumbling. But are we really listening? Are we really trying to smooth it out? Sweeney said…I know we are.”
Sweeney took over the strike group on April 30, less than two months after Nimitz returned from the overseas deployment that began in the spring of 2020, at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, and required periods of isolation without traditional beach leave, masking and social distancing.
He was offered basic housing but chose to live with his wife and two children in Kirkland. His presence in uniform, including his visit to grocery stores, he says, has surprised some.
They say, ‘Thank you for your service,’ said Sweeney, ‘but why are you here? ”
As it moves to Everett Base, his flagship, the Nimitz, which was being carried home in Everett, undergoes months of maintenance at Bremerton.
The nuclear-powered Nimitz, commissioned in 1975 and named after World War II Pacific Fleet commander Admiral Chester Nimitz, is the oldest aircraft carrier in its class. It carries squadrons of combat aircraft that in one day of 95 sorties can fire about 750,000 pounds of bombs on targets, according to the 2018 Office of Congress budget report.
Nimitz is expected to retire later this decade as a new generation of Ford-class aircraft carriers are built. The first Ford-class ships joined the Navy’s fleet after commissioning in 2017.
But the billions of dollars invested in new ships come amid an ongoing debate about the future of the tankers and their potential exposure to anti-ship missiles that could sink them.
An analysis of the 2018 Congressional budget questioned the cost-effectiveness of any major investments to build such tankers, if they could not effectively defend against technological advances.
But the analysis also indicated that stopping the construction of Ford-class carriers could hamper the combat capability of the Navy, as aircraft carriers have been the focus of operations dating back to World War II.
Conflict in the 20th century also demonstrated the weakness of the navy’s ships.
On December 7, 1941, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor left the Navy unprepared and dealt a severe blow to the Pacific Fleet in an action that prompted the United States to enter the war.
On Tuesday, as Pearl Harbor’s 80th anniversary approaches, Sweeney traveled through Puget Sound bearing a stark reminder of that day.
Before an extensive meeting with the sailors, Sweeney presented Nimitz Officer Commanding Captain Craig Sikola with a framed coin from the sunken USS Arizona, which killed 1,177 crew members aboard the Pearl Harbor-based ship.
The relics will now remain with Nimitz to remember that dark day. It has a plaque engraved with the words of Admiral Nimitz, who was called in to take charge of the Pacific Fleet in the aftermath of the attack: “For them, we have a solemn obligation.”
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