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OUT OF THE ROTATION

Since completing a seven-month deployment in 2004 to the Arabian Gulf, the Wasp has not made a scheduled cruise with embarked Marines of at least six months' duration, as have all other big-deck amphibs. 2004 • February: Deployed with 22nd MEU as flagship of Expeditionary Strike Group 2; returned to Norfolk, Va., Sept. 2004. • November: Conducted MV-22 Osprey at-sea testing. 2005 • August: Attended Rockland, Maine, Lobster Festival. • October: Provided emergency relief for victims of Hurricane Wilma. • November: Conducted Osprey at-sea testing. 2006 • April:       Conducted Army MH-47 helicopter qualifications. • August: Attended Maine Lobster Festival. • August: Left Norfolk for Lebanon relief mission; returned Nov. 2006. • December: Conducted Osprey at-sea testing. 2007 • May: Attended New York Fleet Week. • June: Hosted Sail Virginia parade in Norfolk. • June: Exercised with Canadian units off Halifax, Nova Scotia. • September: Took part in Panamax exercises in Caribbean. • September: Provided relief supplies in Nicaragua to victims of Hurricane Felix. • September: Ferried 10 Ospreys to Iraq; returned Dec. 2007. 2009 • April: Left Norfolk to support redeployment of Marine assets in European theater; returned May 2009. • October: Conducted Southern Partnership Station deployment to Central and Latin America; returned Jan. 2010. 2010 • June: Attended Canadian centennial fleet review in Halifax. 2011 • October: Conducted first-ever at-sea testing of F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. 2012 • January: Took part in Exercise Bold Alligator. • April: Attended New Orleans Fleet Week; attended Port Everglades, Fla., Fleet Week. • May: Attended New York Fleet Week. • June 8: Took part in Parade of Sail at Norfolk. • June 15: In port at Norfolk. ——— • NOTE: Derived from U.S. Navy sources. Extended shipyard periods are not listed.

By its own admission, the Navy is straining to meet its operational demands. Regular deployments routinely exceed the old six-month standard, and increasingly, ships are away from home for seven and eight months. The high operations tempo, particularly hard on aircraft carriers and amphibious ships, is expected to continue for the foreseeable future.

But one ship in that group has been conspicuously absent from the deployed battle force.

Instead of loading up hundreds of Marines and their gear from a Marine expeditionary unit for extended operations with an amphibious ready group — like all other amphibious assault ships — the Norfolk, Va.-based Wasp has been held out of the deployment rotation and generally kept close to home.

While sister ship Kearsarge completed an 8½-month cruise in 2011, and the Bataan got back in February from a deployment lasting 10½ months, Wasp's longest time at sea in recent years didn't even reach four months.

The ship's absence from the front lines isn't a new development. Its last MEU/ARG deployment ended in September 2004, nearly eight years ago.

So what is up with Wasp?

"USS Wasp is currently configured to serve as the Navy's Joint Strike Fighter test platform," Lt. Cmdr. Mike Kafka, a spokesman for U.S. Fleet Forces Command, wrote in an email. "As a result of Wasp's assignment as the JSF test platform, she is not currently in the rotation of amphibious assault ships participating in scheduled routine overseas deployments. USS Wasp remains available for operational tasking; however, she will remain the test platform for JSF for the foreseeable future."

But the JSF testing mission began only last year. A Marine Corps F-35B short-takeoff, vertical-landing aircraft — a model that eventually will operate from all assault ships — made the first JSF landing on the ship Oct. 3, the first day of about two weeks of tests that month. No more JSF flights have since taken place from the ship, and none is scheduled this year. Flight tests of the new jet aren't scheduled to resume until the summer of 2013.

The dedicated JSF mission might explain why Wasp hasn't deployed recently. But why didn't Wasp deploy between 2005 and the advent of the JSF tests in 2011?

Spokesmen in several Navy and Marine Corps commands repeatedly declined to answer that question, pointing to the JSF test mission. The decision to use the ship in that role, Kafka said, was made in 2009.

"That's a CYA [cover-your-ass] reason. That is not the reason it's not deploying," said one retired Marine general. "It doesn't seem to make sense to keep one of these ships out of the deployment rotation for so many years."

Several sources privately echoed those thoughts, suggesting that something more fundamental is wrong or deficient with the ship. Some rumors suggest a deficiency in the ship's combat system.

The Navy adamantly denies any major defect or operational limitation on Wasp.

"We are not familiar with any deficiencies in the combat system," said Chris Johnson, a spokesman for Naval Sea Systems Command.

To be sure, Wasp has not been an idle ship. Stretching back to 2004, the big gator conducted several rounds of testing with the MV-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft, and ferried 10 of the planes to Iraq in 2007. It carried out several disaster relief and humanitarian missions, including a run to Lebanon in 2006 and Nicaragua in 2007, exercised in the Caribbean, and made a Southern Partnership Station deployment to Central and Latin America in 2009-10. Wasp hosted dozens of media representatives this winter while taking part in the huge Bold Alligator amphibious exercise off the U.S. East Coast. And through it all, Wasp has routinely represented the Navy and Marine Corps at numerous festivals stretching from the Gulf Coast to Nova Scotia, during which thousands of civilians have toured the huge ship.

"Recurring community relations events such as Fleet Week New York and War of 1812 events in cities like Baltimore are also service requirements, and in most cases an [amphibious assault ship] would be tasked to support these events regardless," said Lt. Col. Matt Morgan, a spokesman for Marine Corps Forces Command in Norfolk.

"As it happens," he added, "the Navy has identified efficiencies associated with a single vessel being assigned to meet these service requirements, which range from routine aviation training (e.g., landing qualifications for MV-22 aircrew) to ongoing naval community relations initiatives."

The dedication of a single ship to an ongoing test program is a rare luxury in today's Navy. In Hawaii, the cruiser Lake Erie serves as the test platform for Aegis ballistic-missile defense development and, while still combat effective, is engaged in virtually continuous software upgrades and live-fire tests for the program. Its crew also is familiar with the needs of the development effort.

But most ships involved in test programs take on the role for only a brief period before resuming their normal duties.

And while all the Navy's amphibious assault ships will ultimately operate the F-35B, none, including Wasp, is fully configured for the aircraft's operation. Wasp, however, already features several JSF-specific alterations, including electrical power modifications, expanded weapons handling and storage, provisions for a new automated logistics system and flight deck modifications.

The October tests also showed the need for more changes to adapt to the high heat thrown off by the F-35B's engine exhaust aimed directly at the deck, and the relocation or shielding of numerous topside fittings.

More work is scheduled to begin on Wasp this fall to repair and modify the ship before flight operations resume next year. All Wasp-class assault ships and the new America-class ships will receive the modifications, estimated to cost about $68 million per ship.

But the JSF test role didn't satisfy at least one congressional source contacted for this story.

"The F-35B hasn't been around that long to test, and the history with this goes longer than the time the plane was available," said one congressional analyst. "That can only be the excuse for the most recent time period."

The analyst pointed to the debates about looming budget cuts, and the need to justify retaining major assets.

"If people are worried about a hollow force, this is a hollow ship," the analyst opined.