USS George Washington prepares for four-year break after 25 years of service

USS George Washington (CVN 73) transits the Atlantic Ocean during a friends and family day cruise in October 2016. Photo: US Navy

U.S. Navy’s nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS George Washington (CVN 73) is preparing to take an extended 40-plus-month break for its Refueling Complex Overhaul (RCOH) maintenance period after nearly 25 years of service.

Throughout the first 25 years of an aircraft carrier’s life, it goes through several maintenance periods, but never anything to the extreme of an RCOH.

The ship, not only takes a toll from the elements and the sea, but also falls behind technologically after 25 years of innovation happening around it. RCOH is essentially the time to renew the ship.

During RCOH, and the follow-on outfitting period, nearly all combat systems equipment will be refurbished, upgraded or replaced with newer technology, said Cmdr. Don Wilson, GW’s combat systems officer.

The ship will receive upgraded weapons systems; to include Rolling Airframe Missile (RAM), Evolved NATO Sea Sparrow Missile System, Close-In Weapons System (CIWS), Mk-38 25mm automatic gun systems, and anti-torpedo defense systems.

The ship’s self-defense system and all other tactical network and intelligence systems and sensors will be upgraded, said Wilson. Consolidated afloat networks and enterprise services will become the new ship-wide network, which will include a new video distribution and surveillance systems, and the mast and the SPN-49 radar tower will be cut off and replaced with a modern design.

Just two years after commissioning, GW set out on her maiden deployment where she served as the backdrop for the 50th anniversary of D-Day before responding to rising tensions between Iraq and Kuwait in the Middle East. Her arrival to the Red Sea was enough to deter Iraq away from Kuwait’s border.

From 1996-2000 GW participated in three more deployments, all of them included assisting in operation Southern Watch (OSW), before entering Norfolk Naval Shipyard for a six-month planned incremental availability (PIA) maintenance period. During the 2000 PIA, the ship received upgrades to its berthing areas, ventilation systems and computer networking systems.

Following PIA, in 2001, GW began preparations for a 2002 deployment. On the morning of Sept. 11, George Washington was operating off the coast of Virginia conducting routine carrier qualifications when the attacks of 9/11 took place.

GW was diverted north and arrived in New York City the next day. For the next three days, as volunteers pulled survivors and the deceased from mountains of twisted metal, the ship and her air wing, which was hastily transferred from the USS John F. Kennedy (CV-67), provided airspace defense for the city and surrounding area.

Nine months later, on June 20, 2002, GW deployed to the Persian Gulf, relieving the Kennedy, in support of operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) and OSW.

During her three months in the Gulf, GW’s embarked air wing, Carrier Air Wing (CVW) 17, launched more than 10,000 sorties.

Sept. 11, 2002 the USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN 72) took over the watch. GW conducted one more deployment between 2002-2005, once again to the Persian Gulf, before entering an 11-month dry-dock PIA period.

During this PIA, many of the ship’s systems were upgraded, work was done to the hull and the four jet blast deflectors were removed and upgraded to handle the increased heat from the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet. GW’s defensive weapons configurations were also altered, as one MK-15 Phalanx CIWS and one NATO Sea Sparrow Surface Missile System (NSSMS) were removed and replaced with two RAM launchers.

The reason behind adding the RAM in 2005 was to provide GW with a more robust, lightweight, fast reaction, high-firepower defensive system to counter incoming anti-ship capable missiles, helicopter and fixed-wing aircraft, and to engage and intercept surface craft, said Wilson.

On Dec. 1, 2005, the Navy announced that GW would be replacing the USS Kitty Hawk (CV 63) as the forward-deployed carrier at Yokosuka Naval Base in Japan, making it the first nuclear-powered surface warship permanently stationed outside the continental U.S.

In a ceremony held on Sept. 1, 2006, Capt. Garry White, GW’s commanding officer at the time, was promoted to Rear Admiral, marking a rare occasion when a flag officer commanded a ship.

GW underwent one last PIA in September of 2006, in preparation of her homeport transfer to Yokosuka. During this PIA, work included the removal and replacement of the ship’s radar mast and propeller screws, as well as the re-alignment of the Aircraft Intermediate Maintenance Department (AIMD).

Following this maintenance period, GW departed Norfolk April 7, 2008, for the transit around the horn of South America. On May 22, 2008, while in transit off the Pacific Coast of South America, a fire broke out in the ship’s air-conditioning and refrigeration space and an auxiliary boiler room. The fire spread throughout the ship via a cableway and ventilation ducting, causing extreme temperatures in some parts of the ship. It took 12-hours for the crew to contain and extinguish the fire, injuring 37 sailors in the process.

After the fire, GW made a stop in San Diego for repairs on May 27. On June 20, the Navy announced that the damage from the fire was more serious than expected, and that repairs would take at least until August and would cost $70 million.

The ship departed San Diego Aug. 21, 2008, and arrived at Yokosuka, Japan, Sept. 25, where several hundred local supporters and protestors greeted the crew.

Throughout 2009, GW went underway in the Pacific and Indian Oceans several times and participated in different operations with allied navies, such as operation Talisman Sabre off the coast of Australia’s Northern Territory, and the Indonesian Fleet Review during Sail Bunaken in North Sulawesi, Indonesia.

2010 held a similar schedule, as the ship conducted numerous operations with the Republic of Korea’s Navy and Air Force in the Sea of Japan and Yellow Sea off the coast of North Korea.

Following the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Fukushima, Japan, George Washington was ordered to leave her dock in Yokosuka, during a maintenance period, to avoid the possibility of being contaminated by the radioactive plume and assist in disaster relief efforts.

During 2012 and 2013, GW partook in two deployments. During these deployments, the ship and her crew participated in several joint training exercises with other service branches and regional partners, conducted dual-carrier operations with the USS John C. Stennis (CVN 74) and provided humanitarian assistance in the Philippines after Typhoon Haiyan.

In January 2014, it was announced that USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76) would replace GW during her RCOH period. This decision caused the first ever three-carrier hull swap and homeport change.

GW departed from Japan for the last time in May 2015 to participate in exercise Talisman Sabre (ETS) 2015 with Australia and New Zealand. Following ETS, George Washington arrived in San Diego Aug. 10, and began a 10-day turnover period with the Reagan. After members of both crews swapped ships, GW left Southern California to travel around the Horn of South America and eventually dock in her new homeport of Naval Station Norfolk.

After her arrival in Norfolk and USS Theodore Roosevelt’s (CVN 71) arrival in San Diego, crewmembers began flying across the U.S. to continue their sea service aboard either the TR or GW depending on where their families resided.

After a busy 2016 full of carrier qualifications, general quarter drills, an expected humanitarian assistance mission to Haiti and other mission requirements, GW concluded her last underway for at least four years, December 17.

During the first half of her life, GW and her innumerable crewmembers have served under 12 commanding officers, consumed more than 150 million meals, and launched and recovered 184,149 aircraft.

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