Deploying is easy. Now comes the hard part.
On 9 December the Carrier Strike Group (CSG) returned home. Flags were waved, bands played, snogging photos were taken and many articles were written (a selection below). The deployment statistics are remarkable and unless you’re part of the group that thinks the whole thing should have taken place in the channel, enough to make you very proud.
Except of course CSG didn’t arrive on the 9th. HMS Queen Elizabeth did. Some of the RN ships came alongside earlier that morning, some later but either way, doing all they could to keep well clear of the carrier return (and probably sick of the sight of her). The excellent RFA Tidespring and various rotary aviation squadrons detached a few days ago. Fixed wing aviation before that, and the US and Dutch aircraft and ships even earlier. The submarine slunk off at some point, probably without telling anyone, and many of the strike group battle-staff will have left early as well. Emotions would have been mixed. The cohesion that you worked so hard for is evaporating in front of your eyes, but you’re going home. It’s the opposite of departing when the mix of (operational) excitement and (domestic) sadness causes conflict in all but the hardiest of sailors.
For me, waving the helicopter off at the end of a trip typified this. They had been an integral and essential part of your operational capability for the last nine months but now they were off, heading to a different base and getting there (and home) 24 hours before you. You’d wave a genuinely fond farewell as they flew past for the last time but often with ‘Jack’ muttering next to you about “half a tour” or maybe a choice phrase with “WAFU [insert word here]” in it.
Once alongside, the process accelerates even faster. Equipment starts getting unbolted the minute you touch the wall. On return from my last deployment it was touch and go as to who would get off the ship first; me or the port gas turbine that was required immediately by a ship that was now higher up the pecking order than us. In fact, all of a suddon, everyone was higher up the pecking order. Then, the ship’s company go on leave until just the duty watch is left, made up of people who had been sent home early specifically to take on this role, but with the odd person who sadly doesn’t really have anywhere to go, or doesn’t want to. The ships this weekend will be very quiet and strange places. Only a few weeks ago they would have been buzzing and now they sit there, drained of their purpose and lifeblood. And already covered in scaffolding.
Leadership at this point in a ship’s lifecycle becomes difficult, maybe more difficult than it was when deployed. Very few people resign during a deployment – they realise that this is what they signed up for and that whilst hard work, it’s actually pretty cool. But if there was money available for when the expression, “I’m slapping my chit in the minute we get back” was uttered over the years/centuries, then that pot would be wealthy. It will be interesting to track the voluntary output (VO) rate across the returning task group. By all accounts both Covid and the sheer weight of both tasks and expectation made this an austere deployment. So there could be a spike. If there is, key areas will need to be very closely monitored. For example, it wouldn’t take many carrier-qualified F35 pilots to decide that the airlines are for them after all, for an already perilously taut plot to become a disaster. More generally, this blip will need to be managed with great care if the ships are to deploy next year having retained enough of the expertise and experience so hard won on this trip.
VO rate is an interesting subject. There was an edict passed c.2010 that ship’s captains were to be judged by how their percentage compared to the fleet average. Fortunately, I don’t think anyone took this seriously because it’s palpably daft. This number, whilst of great interest to ‘the system’ (and, as an aside, often exaggerated), is as dependent on the ship’s programme as it is on the qualities of the captain and besides, the spike caused by the very worst leaders inevitably happens after they’ve gone…which is how they get away with it. Having said that, HMS St Albans managed to keep our VO rate well below the fleet average throughout and I worked in a flotilla where time spent in the boss’s yacht was the key metric so maybe I should have made more of it… Anyway, the point is, the ships of CSG21 now have a really tough leadership challenge to rest and recuperate, maintain readiness where needed and then start the relentless process of regenerating for more operations and challenges next year.
I wish them all the very best, especially to Steve, Angus and Ian who were at the top of the shop. CSG21 achieved some incredible things due to the efforts of thousands of people over many years, but come the day of the race, someone needed to lead it all out at sea. They were called, and they delivered. But the work doesn’t stop for them, their crews and their support staffs just because they’re back home and the cameras are no longer rolling.
Some CSG articles:
Navy Lookout photo essay:
Sir Humprey’s summary:
Commander CSG’s tweet
MOD’s stats video:
The view from the US: