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Costs rise more than $100 billion to maintain Navy ships with clogging toilets and other issues

The Ford-class aircraft carrier USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN 78) turns out to sea on Oct. 25, 2019.

CORY J. DAUT/U.S. NAVY

By JOHN M. DONNELLY | CQ-Roll Call | Published: March 24, 2020

WASHINGTON (Tribune News Service) — The Navy recently decided to use a different sewage system on its two newest aircraft carriers, one that is modeled on the toilets in commercial aircraft.

But flushing for more than 4,000 people living aboard a carrier turned out to be a harder job than it is on a jetliner. Now the massive ships require regular acid flushes — at $400,000 each — just to keep things flowing.

The current and future price for that particular failure of foresight is not yet known. But the wider cost of addressing unexpected operating and support issues for Navy warships is now coming into clearer view, thanks to a Government Accountability Office audit made public Tuesday.

For six classes of U.S. surface ships and submarines, the Navy’s estimated cost of maintenance over the ships’ lives is more than $100 billion higher than it was when full-scale development of the vessels began. For four of the six classes, that cost is more than 50% higher than the earlier estimate.

The GAO’s 106-page report cited at least 150 unpredicted maintenance problems across Navy fleets, including glitches that individually required scores of millions of dollars to fix.

For instance, on the San Antonio class of amphibious ships — which ferry Marines, their vehicles and gear — another plumbing problem arose.

In that case, the Navy decided to use a new type of pipe, made of titanium, to pump seawater used for cooling equipment and firefighting, the GAO said. But the new pipes are susceptible to so-called biofouling — including shellfish growing inside them — and so the pipes must be chlorinated and then de-chlorinated. The total cost for doing this on all the ships is estimated to be $250 million.

In another costly example, the Navy failed to analyze the reliability of a special covering for its Virginia class attack subs, and some of the coverings have come off. The cost of repairs for 11 subs is $735 million, the audit said.

‘The quantity and breadth of issues identified in this report — resulting in billions of dollars in unexpected costs, maintenance delays, and unreliable ships — suggest that existing policies and guidance have not ensured that new ships are reliable and can be sustained as planned,” the report said.

Typically, about 70% of the costs of any Pentagon weapons program occur during its operation, as opposed to its acquisition. In recognition of this reality, the Defense Department and Congress have worked hard to place more emphasis on controlling support costs, with some progress — but not enough, particularly in the Navy’s case, the audit reported.

Members of Congress who oversee the Navy have shown signs in recent months of being increasingly unhappy that, while they attempt to procure more warships, substantial numbers of the vessels are incapable of operating.

That is because systems on board are often broken or because ships are tied up in piers awaiting maintenance work at overworked shipyards.

Some level of mechanical malfunctions are to be expected in any complex system. But the report said the Navy added to its troubles by making overly optimistic predictions of, for example, how much automation could replace sailors.

What’s more, the Navy often simply failed to analyze key systems such as the Virginia class hull coverings. And several policies and guidance documents intended to help officials predict maintenance requirements were not soundly written, the auditors said.

Congress, meanwhile, despite increased emphasis on support costs and consequences, is still not keeping close enough tabs on such problems, the report suggested. Part of the problem is that lawmakers are getting incomplete information about the subject.

The so-called Nunn-McCurdy law, for example, requires the Pentagon to report cost growth in acquisition budgets and to take steps to stem it. But no similar reporting and response is mandated for ballooning support budgets, the audit said.

In addition, the reports to Congress on the cost and performance of weapon programs — known as Selected Acquisition Reports — often convey high marks for maintenance and reliability even when critical systems are not performing well.

Actions unclear The Defense Department concurred, in whole or in part, with all 11 of GAO’s recommendations for improving the arcane process of setting requirements and measuring operations and support outcomes.

“The Navy generally agrees with the GAO recommendations proposed in the subject report, and in many cases has already begun implementing those recommendations as best practices,” wrote James Geurts, the Navy’s acquisition chief, in a memo included in the report.

But Shelby Oakley, the lead author of the GAO project, said in an interview that it is largely unclear what the Navy plans to change.

“Pretty much across the board, they didn’t give us any details on what they plan to do,” Oakley said.

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