San Diego is the hub for one of the most complex maneuvers in the U.S. Navy’s history. The crews of three aircraft carriers will switch places. While the move is being done for strategic reasons, it’s also seen as a way to encourage sailors to stick with the military.
The Navy has never tried to swap the crews of three of its Nimitz Class Aircraft carriers. The operation has been informally dubbed the Three Presidents. The USS George Washington and USS Ronald Reagan switched crews this month in San Diego. The Reagan is on its way to Japan. The Washington is headed to Virginia for its midlife overhaul. The USS Theodore Roosevelt will eventually arrive in San Diego. Around the end of the year, the Roosevelt and Washington will then switch crews in sweeping, cross-country airlift.
“Walk off the ship. Get on planes. They’re calling it 'The Berlin Airlift,'” said Paul Archer, communications specialist for USS George Washington. Archer had just left the Reagan and he’ll ultimately end up on board the Roosevelt.
Each one of these carriers can have up to 3,200 people on board, not counting their air wing. Roughly 70 percent of the Washington’s crew opted to be part of the swap. Even with the logistics of so many crew members switching ships, the Navy estimates it will save $41 million — mostly because they won’t have to move all of the families to new ports.
“It’s stressful, but you learn how to adjust and you learn how to work through it,” said Jill Pick, wife of Master Chief Jason Pick, who also switched from the Reagan to the Washington, when both ships were in port during August.
She’s prepared to go wherever the Navy needs to send them. Her husband has been in the Navy for 18 years. At the same time, her young family is ready to go back to school in San Diego while her husband sails the Washington around South America to Norfolk, Va., so the carrier can refuel its nuclear engines.
Giving people the option to keep their home port also helps the Navy solve its growing retention problem. Sailors and officers in skilled positions can get burned out by long deployments, which may last as long as nine months at sea, said Bryan Clark, senior fellow for the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.
“One thing the Navy is facing right now is significant attrition,” Clark said. “And so if you look at the nuclear personnel in the Navy, in particular the nuclear trained officers. You know, they were losing half to two thirds of their officers after their first tour. And the Navy is trying to reverse that.”
On board the Washington, Paul Hall is anticipating both a new ship and a new baby. His wife is five months pregnant. He said she’s happy that she isn’t packing up to follow the Ronald Reagan to Japan. Hall’s heard similar stories from his crew.
“Everyone knows that moving is one of the worst things you have to deal with,” Hall said. “People don’t want to pack up. Pack the dog up. Pack the family up and move — especially if you have younger kids, you kind of want to stick them in a community school where they can meet their friends, and they can build relationships with friends along the way. Not saying Japan is a bad place. But if you’re here, stay here.”
Hull swaps are likely to become more and more common as the Navy tries to lessen some of the strain of long deployments.
Naval experts say the series of events that led up to swapping the crews of The Three Presidents may never be repeated — making this something of a once in a lifetime event.