Poorly trained crews and inadequately maintained equipment for years have kept many of the Navy’s ships in less-than-ideal readiness condition.
Navy officials are now looking to put the past behind and impose sweeping reforms across the fleet in an effort to increase the number of deployment-ready ships. Pressure is growing to keep vessels in fighting shape as the Navy’s fleet size is not projected to grow for at least five years and Congress continues to question the service’s ability to meet the military’s global-presence strategy.
Navy leaders agree that they have a lot of catching up to do. They also have told Congress that they might need several billion more dollars per year than is currently budgeted for ship readiness.
During a recent conference of naval engineers, Navy officials said the fleet’s readiness problems started nearly a decade ago.
“We had a three-to-five-year period in the mid-2000s when we reduced capacity,” said Rear Adm. David J. Gale, commander of the Navy Regional Maintenance Command.
At the time the Navy was cutting staff, outsourcing ship maintenance duties and scaling back training programs for crews, Gale said at an American Society of Naval Engineers symposium in Arlington, Va.
News of a budding fleet-readiness crisis surfaced in 2010 with revelations that the Navy was not adequately funding ship maintenance and crew training. In a critical report, retired Navy Adm. Phillip Balisle, former head of Naval Sea Systems Command, faulted the Navy for shortchanging surface ship upkeep over the past decade.
Part of the fallout from the Balisle report was a reorganization of senior Navy leadership that placed more top-down oversight on readiness issues.
“Nobody had kept a finger on the pulse of what we had done,” Gale said. Across the Navy’s five Regional Maintenance Command locations, 3,500 people were let go, he said. “We also took sailors off ships, and took time out of sailor training,” Gale added. “It had a negative long-term impact.”
The RMC is now in rebuilding mode, with a staff of 7,800, not including contractors, and an annual budget of $2.2 billion. Gale said 1,600 sailors and 650 civilians were brought back.
One of the toughest problems that the Navy has to address is how to keep crews trained on the latest technology that gets installed on ships, he said. “Talent is only as good as the day we hire them. We make no investment in being ready for the next thing,” Gale added. “A new DDG [Arleigh Burke class destroyer] shows up on the waterfront … and we don’t do anything to prepare for new ships.”
He suggested that one way to fix this is to allow ship maintainers to become familiar with new designs before the vessels join the fleet. “I think there’s an opportunity between acquisition and in-service … to bring my people into the test sites to get them smarter sooner, so there’s less surprise.”
Case in point was the new LPD-17 amphibious ship that was commissioned in 2006. “It was evident that nobody had prepared themselves to support the ship on the waterfront when it arrived,” Gale said. “Everything was a surprise.”
The Balisle study set off a series of reviews within the Navy on the quality and size of ship crews. There was a time when U.S. Navy leaders believed that high-tech ships equipped with cutting-edge computers would require fewer sailors.
Those assumptions are being reassessed, Gale said.
Pressure on the Navy to increase the combat readiness of ships comes as the service prepares to expand is missile-defense duties by deploying more Aegis cruisers and destroyers in strategic hotspots around the world. “A lot of investments are being made in Aegis readiness and Aegis wholeness,” Gale said.
Aegis-equipped surface combatants can attack land targets, submarines and surface ships, as well as protect the fleet against aircraft and missiles.
Even though the Aegis combat system has been retrofitted with commercial off-the-shelf computers so that it would be easier to maintain and update, the Navy has struggled to adjust to the COTS environment, officials said.
“We thought COTS was free. We thought that all would be well if we went to COTS,” said Rear Adm. James D. Syring, the Navy’s program executive officer for integrated warfare systems. “We failed to understand how difficult it is for somebody accustomed to the milspec environment to maintain [COTS]” systems.
“We cannot let that happen again,” Syring said. Like Gale, he stressed the need for more crew training. Aegis is a complex system, he said. “When a ship is rolling at sea state four or five, you’re in the computer room just trying to maintain your balance [while trying to program several computers simultaneously].”
Rear Adm. James J. Shannon, commander of the Naval Surface Warfare Center, said the Navy at times is guilty of designing ships without considering the needs and limitations of human operators.
“We need better human systems integration,” he told engineers at the conference. “We need to build ships that fight the enemy and not the system.”
When engineers design weapon systems, he said, they might assume that sailors are fully trained and crews are working at full capacity. That would be a flawed assumption, Shannon said. “Sailors differ in their capacity, resilience, culture, training, skills, motivation. … We need to rethink our approach to design and interfaces.” In Aegis ships, sailors easily can be “overwhelmed with combat information,” he said. “We need to account for behavior science in ship design.”
Shannon conceded that the Navy’s once ambitious goals of deploying “smart ships” with lean crews were unrealistic. “We realized we went too far,” he said. “We need more sailors. We can’t handle maintenance, or watch standing. … We are going to wrestle with that throughout my lifetime and the next generation.”
Navy leaders told the readiness subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee March 22 that they worry that the new strategy for keeping more ships in combat-ready shape will cost more than what they have in their budget.
“I think we have a good plan to recover surface ship readiness. … But that new plan, which is just beginning to take effect, is costly,” Navy Vice Admiral William Burke, deputy chief of naval operations for fleet readiness and logistics, told the panel.
“I am concerned that we will not properly fund the maintenance in the future” because of internal competition for funds between the maintenance and procurement accounts, he said. “You'll do more procurement if you don't do the maintenance, but you won't end up with the same quality fleet or the same size fleet.”
Burke said the Navy has funded billions of dollars worth of ship repairs and support over the past decade from war-supplemental budgets that are expected to decline dramatically as U.S. forces prepare to withdraw from Afghanistan. “The biggest challenge to the readiness accounts, I believe, is supplemental funding. And supplemental funding [known as OCO, or overseas contingency operations] is what is making our readiness accounts whole today,” Burke said. “Without supplemental funding, we'd be a couple of billion dollars a year in the hole.”
OCO funds about 20 percent of all required ship maintenance. Surface ship maintenance in fiscal year 2013 is 100 percent funded with supplemental war budgets, Burke said. Without the approximately $1.3 billion of extra money, it would be 80 percent funded.
“We preferentially repair carriers and submarines over surface ships,” Burke said. “We take the risk, when we take it, in maintenance of the surface ships.”
Surface ships mostly are repaired in private yards as opposed to government yards. “To retire that $1.3 billion risk that's being paid for in OCO today we would essentially not fund any surface ship availabilities for 2013,” he said. “We would eventually get to a point where your ships weren't in a condition that they could deploy.”
With any ship, support and maintenance makes up three quarters of the entire lifecycle cost, said Burke. The operating costs for cruisers are about $40 million a year, but maintenance, repairs and upgrades can add up to several hundred million dollars a year.