EVERETT NAVAL STATION – Rear Admiral Christopher Sweeney is from the east coast of Maryland who as a child traveled to Chesapeake Bay on a boat called the Striper Swiper to fish for rockfish.
Earlier this year, he arrived on his first tour of duty in the Puget Sound area to command Carrier Strike Group 11, a force of planes and ships spread out over bases stretching from Washington’s Whidbey Island in San Diego.
The strike group fighters, electronic warfare growlers, helicopters, destroyers, cruisers and aircraft carriers are the backbone of the US Navy. They are helping to maintain the intensive tempo of the Navy’s global operations, which last year included a pandemic strike group deployment – led by flagship USS Nimitz – to the Pacific, the Middle East and offshore. from East Africa, who kept the crew away from families for over 11 months.
Next year, the task force is expected to return to sea for a new mission. Sweeney says he does not yet know where the strike group will go, although he has an idea of a departure date, which is not announced publicly in advance.
“Who knows, maybe they’ll call me tomorrow and tell me to go faster… that would be great,” Sweeney said.
Sweeney commands the attack group in an era of renewed competition between the great powers, which intensified earlier this year when China introduced models in the shape of American aircraft carriers for shooting exercises in the desert, according to a report by the US Naval Institute.
The Defense Ministry spends billions each year to expand and modernize a fleet facing the challenges of a 21st century in which China now commands the world’s largest naval fleet.
There is also an urgent need to maintain aging ships, such as the nuclear-powered Nimitz, and to equip them with qualified officers and non-commissioned members. The risks of not being successful in these tasks were clearly demonstrated in 2017.
That year, the Navy experienced four serious accidents, including two collisions at sea resulting in the deaths of 17 sailors and hundreds of millions of dollars in damage to ships. An internal Navy review cited crew overwork and fatigue, as well as training gaps, as contributing factors.
Earlier this year, a Government Accountability Office report found that the Navy still consistently assigns fewer crew members to ships than its workload studies determined they were necessary to operate safely. This study also included surveys indicating that most sailors are still not getting enough sleep.
Sweeney was involved in some of the escalation investigations.
He served as a Navy Liaison Officer to two families of the 10 Sailors who died Aug. 21, 2017, when the USS John S. McCain collided with an oil tanker in a congested body of water east of the Straits of Malacca. The Navy’s investigation blamed much of the blame on the oversight of leaders and the poor training that led to crew errors, while a National Transportation Safety Board investigation also cited a touchscreen navigation system that increased the potential for operator errors.
More recently, Sweeney conducted a Navy Command investigation into the sinking of an amphibious assault vehicle on July 30, 2020, killing nine servicemen as they returned to the USS Somerset during a training exercise off San Clemente Island in California. This investigation, along with separate Marine Corps investigations, cited poor maintenance and inadequate training as two of the causes.
Sweeney said her heart was “saturated with grief” over the loss of life.
When preparing for strike group drills, he said, when “you want to push hard”, during training, safety must be a priority, so that sailors do not get injured.
In discussions with the task force war commander, he checks whether the vessels are properly equipped and the crew is prepared set sail so that he can assess readiness and weigh the risk to his force and mission.
The Navy has a massive presence in the Puget Sound area with a payroll comprising over 25,000 military personnel and over 20,000 civilians. In addition to Everett, there’s Naval Base Kitsap, Naval Magazine Indian Island, and Naval Air Station Whidbey Island, according to a 2020 Navy presentation.
Their presence is not without controversy. And he only has intensified in recent years amid an expansion of 33 aircraft from the Whidbey Island-based EA-18G Growler fleet.
Operations in a field near Coupeville have nearly quadrupled, and critics have lambasted the Navy for ignoring the impacts on public health and wildlife from the noise of the Growler jets. In 2019, state attorney general Bob Ferguson filed a complaint alleging that a Navy environmental review failed to fully measure the impacts of the expansion and violated federal law.
Sweeney, whose attack group includes Growler Squadrons, said he could not comment on the ongoing litigation. He is well aware of the noise of airplanes ever since he had them “essentially land on my head” while docked in quarters under an aircraft carrier airstrip.
“We’re not going to fix the sound of the Growler. But are we really listening? Are we really trying to mitigate it? … I know we are, ”Sweeney said.
Sweeney assumed command of the strike group on April 30, less than two months after the Nimitz returned from the overseas deployment that began in the spring of 2020, at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and the periods of isolation required without traditional shore permission, masks and social distancing.
He was offered basic accommodation, but chose to live with his wife and two sons in Kirkland. His uniformed presence, including visits to grocery stores, he said, took some by surprise.
“They say ‘Thank you for your service, but why are you here?’ Said Sweeney.
While commuting to Everett Base, his flagship ship, the Nimitz, undergoes months of maintenance at Bremerton.
The nuclear-powered Nimitz, commissioned in 1975 and named after WWII Pacific Fleet Commander Admiral Chester Nimitz, is the oldest in its class of aircraft carrier. It carries squadrons of fighter jets that, in a single day of 95 sorties, can drop some 750,000 pounds of bombs at targets, according to a 2018 Congressional Budget of Office report.
The Nimitz is expected to retire later this decade as a new generation of Ford-class aircraft carriers are built. The first of these Ford-class ships joined the Navy fleet after being commissioned in 2017.
But the billions of dollars invested in the new ships come amid an ongoing debate over the future of aircraft carriers and their potential vulnerability to anti-ship missiles that could sink them.
Analysis of the 2018 congressional budget questioned the profitability of any major investment in building such carriers, if they could not effectively defend against technological advancements.
But the analysis also noted that a halt to the construction of Ford-class aircraft carriers could hamper the Navy’s combat capability, as aircraft carriers have been a centerpiece of operations since World War II.
But this 20th century conflict also demonstrated the vulnerability of Navy ships.
On December 7, 1941, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor caught the navy off guard and dealt a severe blow to the Pacific Fleet in an action which spurred the entry of the United States into the war.
As Pearl Harbor’s 80th anniversary approached Tuesday, Sweeney walked through Puget Sound with a stark reminder of that day.
Before a hands-on meeting with the Sailors, Sweeney presented Nimitz’s captain, Captain Craig Sicola, a framed metal part of the sunken USS Arizona, which claimed the lives of 1,177 crew members on board. the ship based in Pearl Harbor.
The relic will now reside with the Nimitz in remembrance of that dark day. With it is a plaque inscribed with the words of Admiral Nimitz, who was called to take control of the Pacific Fleet in the aftermath of the attack: “To them we have a solemn obligation. ”