The worst enemy of the U.S. Navy may not be China – but rather American shipyards.
Despite some progress in remedying deficiencies that have deprived warships of critical maintenance, numerous problems are hampering the Navy’s effort to keep its vessels maintained, according to a new Government Accountability Office (GAO) report. The shortfalls are so bad that it may take decades for the Navy to catch up – while aircraft carriers and ballistic missile submarines forego needed refits.
For example, shipyard equipment is old and rundown. “The average age of capital equipment has continued to increase,” GAO said. “More than half the equipment at the shipyards is past its expected service life.”
In 2018, the Navy began the ambitious 20-year, $21 billion shipyard Shipyard Infrastructure Optimization Plan, strangely given the acronym of SIOP (the same as the old U.S. master plan for nuclear war). However, SIOP is already encountering delays. “Initial SIOP schedule goals have slipped,” GAO noted. “Detailed shipyard investment plans will not be complete until fiscal year 2025, three years later than planned.”
Salvaging Navy shipyards is a daunting task
Inflation isn’t helping either. The price tag for restoring shipyard facilities has soared by $1.6 billion over the last five years, while the cost of renovating drydocks has doubled.
“In 2018, the Navy estimated that it would need $4 billion to modernize its 17 dry docks,” GAO said. “However, the Navy reports that the cost of just the first three dry dock projects has grown by over $4 billion. This is on top of costs not included in the initial SIOP estimate — such as inflation, utilities, environmental remediation, and historical preservation — which could add billions.”
“Completely implementing the SIOP will involve funding well above the levels allocated in recent years for shipyard infrastructure; as well as significant planning and sustained management attention over 20 years,” GAO concluded.
However, given the track record of the Pentagon – and of Congress and the White House – sustained funding, planning, and tight management for 20 years does not seem realistic. Nonetheless, the consequences of not fixing America’s naval shipyards would be devastating.
In 2020, GAO had determined that “maintenance delays on aircraft carrier repairs from fiscal year 2015 through 2019 had resulted in a total of 1,128 days of maintenance delay-days that ships were not available for operations. This is the equivalent of losing the use of more than 0.5 aircraft carriers each year. During the same timeframe, maintenance overruns on submarine repairs resulted in a total of 6,296 days of maintenance delay. This was the equivalent of losing the use of more than three submarines each year.”
Related: Navy still pouring millions into shipboard laser weapon development
A vicious cycle of disrepair
One reason for the delays was that the demand for depot-level maintenance exceeded capacity at the four Navy shipyards at Norfolk, Pearl Harbor, Portsmouth, and Puget Sound, as well as at the private shipyards of General Dynamics Electric Boat and Huntington Ingalls Industries – Newport News Shipbuilding. Further, as in other sectors of American manufacturing, shipyards are having difficulty hiring and retaining skilled workers.
Meanwhile, ships were being sent out on longer deployments with fewer sailors on board, which means crews were too small to perform minor maintenance on their own. This creates a vicious cycle: ships that forego scheduled maintenance – and lack sufficient crew to take care of minor maintenance – end up needing major refits even more. This means that when they do finally find a slot in a shipyard, repairs take even longer, which only lengthens shipyards’ backlog.
The Navy has made progress, according to GAO. There is more oversight of SIOP, and better metrics and reporting to track shipyard delays.
But in the end, fixing leaks and repairing engines just isn’t as appealing as buying a new jet fighter.
“Navy officials told us that the Navy consistently prioritizes other programs — such as weapon system acquisitions — over facility sustainment,” GAO said.
“For example, Navy officials stated that aircraft, submarine, and ship acquisition initiatives consistently receive priority over facility sustainment because of their perceived greater importance in performing the Navy’s assigned missions.”
However, the U.S. is not the only major power whose Navy faces problems: Chinese amphibious vessels catch on fire and Russian aircraft carriers suffer dockyard disasters. When it comes to maintenance misery, the U.S. Navy isn’t alone.
Michael Peck is a contributing writer for Sandboxx and Forbes. He can be found on Twitter and LinkedIn.
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