Fact Check

Five Nuclear Carriers in Harbor

President Obama did not order five first-line U.S. aircraft carriers into port together in a shocking breach of military protocol.

Published March 4, 2013

President Obama ordered five first-line U.S. aircraft carriers into port together in a shocking breach of military protocol.
What's True

Five aircraft carriers were once all docked at Norfolk at the same time.

What's False

The five carriers were not "first-line" ships, they were not ordered into port by President Obama, they were not diverted from operations in the Middle East and Afghanistan, and the situation was not an "unprecedented breach of military protocol."

The above-displayed photograph of ships lined up at the piers of the Norfolk Naval Base was widely circulated online beginning in March 2013 with accompanying claims that it showed five U.S. aircraft carriers simultaneously docked in the same place for the first time since World War II. Although the photograph is genuine, and five carriers were indeed docked at Norfolk at the same time, most of the claims in the accompanying text are exaggerated or untrue: the ships were not all "first line" carriers, nor were they "pulled out from the Middle East" and "ordered into harbor for routine inspections," and the situation was not the first occurrence of its type since World War II, nor was it a "breach of long-standing military protocol."

Although the Norfolk photograph was circulated in March 2013 as something snapped "the other day," it was actually taken in mid-December 2012, when many U.S. Navy ships of all types were briefly docked at a number of fleet concentration areas to facilitate the traditional practice of giving ships' crews a chance to spend part of the holiday season with their families:

Five aircraft carriers, four big-deck amphibious assault ships, a full cast of "small boy" surface warships, along with nuclear submarines and support ships, are crowding the [Norfolk] base, giving a comfortably snug feeling to the waterfront. Similar scenes — although not with the gathering of flattops seen here — are taking place at other fleet concentration areas like San Diego and Pearl Harbor.

The Navy makes a point of trying to gives its shipboard crews a chance to spend Christmas with their families, and for a few days the percentage of ships underway drops to the lowest point it will be all year. But many of these ships will be gone in two weeks as the pace of operations picks up again.

That grouping of ships at Norfolk did include five aircraft carriers (the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower, USS George H.W. Bush, USS Enterprise, USS Harry S. Truman, and USS Abraham Lincoln, but they were not all "first line" carriers, they were not diverted from the Middle East or ordered into port for "routine inspections," nor was this the first time such a collection of carriers had taken place since World War II:

  • The USS Enterprise (CVN 65) was no longer a "first line" ship at the time this photograph was taken, as it had already begun the process of deactivation at the beginning of December 2012 (a step towards its planned decommissioning) and "will never again go to sea under her own power."
  • As noted by the U.S. Navy, the other four aircraft carriers all had planned, routine reasons for being in port at Norfolk in December 2012; none of these ships was abruptly or unexpectedly "ordered into harbor for routine inspections":

    DWIGHT D. EISENHOWER's deployment to the Persian Gulf region was extended recently when her replacement, the Pacific carrier NIMITZ, needed to undergo emergency repairs. IKE is home for about two months to have her flight deck resurfaced, then will return to Central Command's Fifth Fleet.

    Sheds cover the ABRAHAM LINCOLN's flight deck as she prepares to cross to Newport News early next year to begin a three-and-a-half-year refueling overhaul, the most comprehensive refit a carrier will undergo in its 50-year service life.

    HARRY S. TRUMAN has completed most of her training and is expected to deploy to the Fifth Fleet region later this winter.

    GEORGE H. W. BUSH completed a major overhaul in early December and is in the early stages of deployment work ups.

    The USS Dwight D. Eisenhower had returned to Norfolk three months earlier than previously scheduled in order to resurface its flight deck prior to a planned redeployment; the USS Harry S. Truman had returned to Norfolk from its previous deployment in December 2010 and as of December 2012 was still awaiting redeployment orders; the USS George H.W. Bush had completed an overhaul and remained at Norfolk while conducting sea trials in preparation for an upcoming training cycle and deployment; and USS Abraham Lincoln remained at Norfolk while awaiting departure for a refueling complex overhaul at Newport News shipyard (which was delayed due to a lack of funding).

  • The December 2012 occurrence wasn't the first time since World War II that five aircraft carriers (or five nuclear powered aircraft carriers) had all been docked in the same place at the same time. A similar coincidental grouping took place at Norfolk in July 1997, and at the time a Navy spokesman stated that such a move was "not considered a security risk":

    For the first time, all five Norfolk-based nuclear-powered aircraft carriers will be moored at their home port, and all of it in time for Independence Day.

    For nearly a week beginning [2 July 1997], the flattops will be nextdoor neighbors along the piers at Norfolk Naval Base, Navy spokesman Mike Maus said.

    "It just worked out that way," Maus said. "There was no plan to say, 'Let's bring all the carriers in for the Fourth of July.' Between scheduling for normal routine operations and shipyard stuff, that's how it happened to fall into place."

    Usually only two or three of the carriers are in port together, with others out on exercises or deployments to the Mediterranean Sea, or at the shipyard for repairs, Maus said.

    All five will remain at the base until [8 July], when the USS Theodore Roosevelt will head to Newport News Shipbuilding for an overhaul that is expected to take about a year.

    Four carriers will be beside each other, with two each at Piers 11 and 12. The fifth will be at Pier 7, the other pier deep enough to accommodate an carrier.

    The Navy doesn't consider having all five in port at the same time to be a security risk, Maus said: "At this particular time, we don't really have much of a threat from anybody."

  • Sources

    Associated Press.   "5 Nuclear Carriers to Be in Norfolk for 4th Holiday."     2 July 1997.

    David Mikkelson founded the site now known as snopes.com back in 1994.

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