The Navy is playing musical chairs and moving around three aircraft carriers in a complicated maneuver that will leave the Asia-Pacific region without a forward-deployed carrier for several months.
The Navy announced Tuesday that the USS George Washington arrived in San Diego from Japan, which it left in mid-May. The carrier is heading to Newport News, Va., to begin years of maintenance.
To take the Washington's place as the Navy's only forward-deployed carrier overseas, the USS Ronald Reagan will soon head out to Yokosuka, Japan, and arrive sometime in the fall.
Over the next 10 or so days, the crews on both ships are shifting in a "10-day hull swap," so that those who just arrived in San Diego on the Washington will return to Japan on the Reagan.
Those destined for the Washington will take the carrier to Newport News and then eventually fly back to San Diego.
To take the Reagan's place in San Diego, the USS Theodore Roosevelt will arrive there from the Persian Gulf later this year instead of heading to its home port in Virginia, but its crew will eventually fly back to Virginia.
The "three-carrier swap" is being done to accommodate the George Washington's midlife maintenance, which will put the carrier out of commission for several years.
"The key reason [for the swap] is that the George Washington needs a refueling and complex overhaul. It's at that time in its service life where it needs to be done," said Navy spokesman Lt. Tim Hawkins.
The four-month carrier gap in the Asia Pacific alarmed Republican lawmakers when the plan was announced last year.
Although there have been carrier gaps in the past, defense cuts under sequestration have slowed maintenance for ships and caused more to be sidelined for longer.
The Obama administration had wanted to retire the George Washington, which would reduce the overall number of carriers from 11 to 10, but Armed Services Committee lawmakers fought to pay for the maintenance, which some experts say would cost about $6 billion.
The Navy said the gap would not affect the president's "rebalance" of focus and resources to the Asia Pacific.
"Even though we're removing George Washington in order to conduct this extended maintenance, we will still maintain our commitment to the Asia-Pacific region and our allies by forward deploying USS Ronald Reagan," Hawkins said.
Hawkins noted that the Reagan has just undergone upgrades to many of its systems, he added, "which demonstrates we're sending one of our most advanced carriers to be forward deployed in Japan."
"We're making sure we forward-deploy our most advanced and capable asset in that region," he said. "In that regard, it is part of the Asia rebalance and a deliberate effort on our part to put forth the best in order to support the security, stability and prosperity in the region."