A combination of a shrinking fleet and escalating commitments around the world
has prompted the U.S. Navy to come up with a new model for its ship maintenance
and repair operations.
Under a blueprint called “fleet response concept,” the Navy will
reshuffle ship maintenance schedules and relocate shipyard workers as needed,
in an attempt to boost the service’s war readiness.
Although the idea is viewed as a common-sense approach to meeting these growing
demands, Navy officials and outside experts concede that, so far, nobody really
is sure whether the U.S. industrial base can adapt to the new model, at least
in the foreseeable future. It also is unclear to what extent the improved combat
readiness will come at the expense of the quality of life of Navy personnel.
The fleet response concept will seek to “institutionalize” the
kind of buildup that the Navy executed in anticipation of the war with Iraq,
a conflict for which the Navy deployed 70 percent of its ships, said Adm. Vernon
Clark, chief of naval operations.
Rather than focus on deployment dates, the Navy will need to work “readiness
angles,” Clark said at a breakfast meeting with reporters. The bottom
line, he said, is to be able to “scramble” at least five or six
carrier battle groups on short notice, when contingencies arise.
This marks a drastic departure from the structured procedures and schedules
typically associated with ship maintenance availabilities.
“We have been a Navy that is fundamentally a rotational force,”
he said. “We will continue to be a Navy that is a rotational force. But
we will also be a Navy that is a rotational and a surge force.”
In charge of carrying out the fleet response concept is Adm. Robert J. Natter,
commander of U.S. Fleet Forces Command.
The Naval Sea Systems Command will see that U.S. shipyards adapt to the fleet
response concept, said Rear Adm. William Klemm, NAVSEA’s deputy for logistics,
maintenance and industrial operations.
“We have to change the business in the industrial concept,” he
told reporters. “No longer are we going to be sitting here two years in
advance, planning how to do the availability. I may very well be told that a
ship coming back in a month needs to be reconstituted for a following deployment.”
The problem with the industrial base is that it never was designed for the
flexible approach to ship maintenance the Navy is now adopting, Klemm said.
“In the Cold War era, we assigned ships to shipyards, [in] rotational
assignments,” he said. “We would plan up to two years in advance
for that availability, buy material and do the engineering work.”
In the rotational force, one third of the Navy is on deployment, one third
in stand-down maintenance and one third in “inter-deployment training
If a conflict erupts, some of the ships in training have to prepare to relieve
those ships on deployment. A portion of the ships on deployment have to stay
longer than planned.
Under this model, about one-third to one-half of the Navy could be ready to
respond. With the fleet response concept, the goal is to keep two-thirds of
the fleet in war-ready status, said Klemm.
Having more ships in such high readiness status means, for example, that shipyards
will need to do a better job keeping the ships steadily in good condition rather
than patch them up and meet the deployment deadline, Klemm said.
During the Vietnam War, “we ran our ships hard, and we paid the price.
It took years to bring them back. That situation today would bring us to our
knees,” said Klemm. “We have to be able to sustain ships in a much
more agile fashion, without having to put them into maintenance.”
That requires “investing in the infrastructure of the ships, so they
can sustain themselves. ... We are not just going to be sending a horde of shipyard
workers to put band-aids and patches, so the ship can get underway.”
Further, the shipyards will need to make their workforces available to move
to other yards provisionally, if needed, to work on ships that may not be able
to return to their home port, if the Navy decides it wants those ships to be
ready to redeploy on short notice. “Taking someone from Newport News and
sending them to Hawaii is a big investment. But that is the environment we are
in today. ... It’s similar to what happens in the private sector.”
The upshot is not only that shipyard workers will be asked to relocate periodically,
although temporarily, but that the yards will not be able to count on a steady
stream of work, as has been the case. The workload may be more erratic and less
Simply stated, there are not enough skilled workers to go around and not enough
money to give every shipyard regular work, Klemm said.
“To sustain individual shipyards and their ability to execute a complete
workload is cost prohibitive,” he said. “We reduced the public and
private industrial base to the point that sustaining critical skills ... is
very difficult.” The industrial base today “has an adequate number
of resources, but they are not necessarily where the ship is. Therefore we have
to move those resources to where the ships are. Our work forces have to be more
For that reason, NAVSEA came up with the so-called “one shipyard”
concept, which makes a more “efficient use of resources,” Klemm
said. “We can go to one shipyard and find people from many of the other
shipyards. ... It’s not a situation the nation has seen before. It’s
almost unheard of for a naval shipyard whose mission is maintenance and emergency
response to be involved in new construction.”
In the past, Klemm added, “the operators would have scheduled the ship,
deployed, returned, and the maintainers would take the time available to us
to put the ship into an availability. If eight ships came back, we would put
them into availability at the same time. In today’s construct, we can’t
afford to do that, either in dollars or people.”
Under the fleet response concept, “we are looking at a global scheduling
process. We’ll have a seat alongside the operators as they develop the
scheduling and process of deploying ships. ... They will do that in concert
with the employment of the industrial base.
“We will be metering these ships through these maintenance periods and,
not lumping them all together,” he said. “This levels out the work
in the industrial base and preserves the surge capability.”
The Navy owns four major shipyards. Additionally, there are 280 privately owned
yards, employing over 90,000 workers, involved in shipbuilding and ship repair
in the United States. But only 43 of those yards are capable of dry-docking
vessels of 122 meters in length or over, and only two companies, which collectively
own six shipyards, can build new platforms.
Return From Deployment
Ships generally are in good condition when they return from deployments, because
commanders put a lot of effort into maintenance. “That asset is more viable
to turn around and send back to the theater than another ship that just came
out of a maintenance availability,” Klemm said. “Some of those ships
coming back from deployment will be held as a ‘surgeable’ asset,
while some of their peers are engaged in maintenance.”
The Defense Department, he said, wants to be able to employ the Navy when it
needs to. “The response should not be dictated by our concept of employment,
but by the requirements.”
The rotational concept was specifically designed for the Cold War environment.
During that time, Klemm said, “the goal was to present a visible presence
that ‘we are there.’ In a surge force, we go to Iraq, we do something
and we leave. We don’t have to have a presence, a large number of ships
cruising around the Persian Gulf, because that does not perform any deterrent
function in that particular environment.”
The posture clearly has changed, but not the budget, he said.
Anyone who thinks that shipyards are about to strike gold, as the Navy returns
70 percent of the fleet from Iraq, is misguided. There would not be enough money
or bodies to service such a large number of ships, Klemm said. “That is
not the construct any more. ... The Navy is not planning to do a massive industrial
Klemm acknowledged that the fleet response concept will be difficult to execute.
“It’s far more complex than has met the eye.”
Vice Adm. John J. Grossenbacher, senior commander of the U.S. submarine force,
said that the fleet response concept makes sense in today’s environment.
“Our ability to surge a large force as we did in OIF is more important
than maintaining a steady state routine forward-deployment presence,”
he said at a conference of the Naval Submarine League.
Submarines that recently returned from Operation Iraqi Freedom generally required
“little reconstitution,” he said. The submarine force remains on
a 24-month cycle—six months deployed and 18 months in maintenance and
operations in home port. According to Grossenbacher, 80 percent of U.S. attack
submarines (currently 54) are “ready every day.”
How successful the Navy will be in executing the fleet response concept, however,
remains to be seen, said Scott C. Truver, senior vice president for national
security programs at Anteon Corp.
“The logistics side has to be worked out,” he said. Flag officers
privately have commented that “they don’t know what the implications
will be for the industrial base,” said Truver. If this new “surge
philosophy” takes hold, “ships will be deployed for longer periods
of time, perhaps maintained in theater ... the yards will be affected.
“Most of the naval shipyards depend on a relatively constant stream of
ships coming in for complex overhauls and upgrades,” he said. The private
sector, particularly, “may not survive. ... There may be long periods
between availabilities where the work force may be idle.”
The Navy’s idea of having a “movable workforce” for temporary
duty at other shipyards would address that problem, Truver said. “But
what does that do to the quality of service and the quality of life of shipyard
workers? It makes it kind of crummy.”
The “one shipyard” concept in theory is sensible, but in reality
it may not work, Truver said. Many shipyard workers have worked in a yard for
20 years. “They’ll have to move into a different environment, with
different systems. I don’t think it’s going to be as easy as some
The new approach is “not impossible,” but the jury is “going
to be out for a while.”
The Navy can expect that longer deployments and increased ship readiness will
take a toll on people’s quality of life. The fleet essentially is being
asked to work harder, even as the number of ships declines—from 303 today
to 291 by 2006. “It’s a bad situation, and they are trying to figure
out how to make it work,” Truver said.
Clark said he recognized that, under the new posture, the Navy may improve
its readiness, but lose the “battle for people.”
That would be bad news for a Navy that prides itself on high retention and
recruiting rates. “Am I concerned about it? You’d better believe
it,” said Clark. In anticipation of potential personnel crises in the
future, Clark set up a task force to reform the personnel system and develop
enticements for people to stay in the service, despite longer deployments. “If
we incentivize this correctly, we can deal with this,” he said. Nonetheless,
“Can this thing go the wrong way? If we start driving people toward nine-month