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Navy takes aim at 'persistent, substantial' maintenance woes, but no quick fix is in sight

A hull maintenance technician welds metal in the machinery repair shop aboard the aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis in Norfolk, Va., Feb. 27, 2020.

SARAH M. THIELEN/U.S. NAVY

By HUGH LESSIG | Daily Press (Newport News, Va.) | Published: October 30, 2020

NEWPORT NEWS, Va. (Tribune News Service) — The Navy has begun to scale its mountainous backlog of ship maintenance work, but reaching the summit is a multi-billion-dollar effort that will take years, a recent federal audit says.

Navy ships spent 33,700 more days in maintenance than expected between 2014 to 2019, the U.S. Government Accountability Office reported. During that same period, 75% of scheduled maintenance was not completed on time.

Multiple factors are to blame, including aging public shipyards, lack of skilled workers, extended deployments that increase wear and tear on ships and delaying maintenance.

The problem has implications for Hampton Roads, home to one of the Navy's four public shipyards and the nation's highest concentration of private shipyards that handle fleet repairs and upgrades.

The new 2020 defense spending bill directs the Secretary of the Navy to submit a report to Congress within 180 days on the underlying causes of maintenance delays on ships and submarines, Defense News recently reported.

There is plenty of fodder for such a study, as evidenced in early December when a Senate Armed Services panel met to discuss the issue and heard from GAO and Navy leaders.

Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Virginia, said the statistics cited by GAO "paint a stark picture about how we make improvements to readiness."

Navy leaders told senators they are moving on several fronts.

The service has boosted the workforce at its four public yards by 9,000 people since 2010 and transformed training methods. It plans to deploy hull-crawling robots in 2020, which can work faster and improve safety.

They also are in the second year of a 20-year, $21 billion plan to fully modernize its four public shipyards to efficiently handle work on nuclear-powered warships.

Vice Adm. Tom Moore of Naval Sea Systems Command and James Geurts, the Navy's acquisition chief, testified before the committee, saying they were approaching ship maintenance with a sense of urgency.

To meet increased demands at hot spots around the world, the Navy has lengthened ship deployments and delayed maintenance work. It also reduced crew sizes between 2003 and 2012.

Taken together, those moves "have resulted in declining ship conditions across the fleet and have increased the amount of time that ships require to complete maintenance in the shipyards," the GAO report states.

The Navy since has moved to add crew members, adding 32 sailors to its guided-missile destroyers and 23 to its San Antonio-class amphibious ships.

On the labor front, the Navy's hiring boost has helped fill the ranks at public yards, but it also means a large portion of the workforce lacks practical experience. At the Puget Sound shipyard in Washington, 45% of skilled workers had fewer than five years of experience as of one year ago, GAO noted.

The $21 billion upgrade plan is aimed at old or insufficient infrastructure. Four of the five dry docks at Norfolk Naval Shipyard face flooding threats from extreme high tides and storm swells. No dry docks at any of the four yards can accommodate a Gerald R. Ford-class aircraft carrier, even though the first ship of that class was delivered to the Navy two years ago.

And GAO says the $21 billion doesn't account for inflation and other significant expenses, such as environmental remediation.

The Navy has said that figure is more an initial indicator of the scope of the work. Some projects are already underway.

In June, Norfolk Naval Shipyard reopened a renovated building that holds 15 shop spaces and allows work to be done closer to ships, cutting down on travel time. In July, the Navy broke ground on a new training facility at the yard. Other programs at Norfolk are in the planning stages.

Hampton Roads has seven private yards that also do Navy work, including Newport News Shipbuilding, a division of Huntington Ingalls Industries. To increase efficiency on this front, the Navy is working to improve planning, forecasting how long maintenance work will last and adjusting schedules to smooth out the workload.

The Newport News shipyard has taken on more maintenance work for Los Angeles-class submarines. But that work also has been challenging, since the yard and its workers are geared toward shipbuilding, not ship repair, and the two are different, officials have said.

Still, it's a long game, and not just because the $21 billion plan — or whatever it will end up costing — will take two decades. The Navy estimates it will take four years to restore ship crew levels and several years to improve maintenance planning at its public yards.

"Until the Navy addresses these challenges," GAO says, "it will be hindered in its ability to rebuild readiness and prepare for the future, particularly as it grows the size of the fleet."

hlessig@dailypress.com

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