Navy Surface Fleet Faces Rough Waters Trying to Maintain Ships

By Valerie Insinna

The Navy in the past decade has found itself in a downward spiral of maintenance problems. It has subjected the fleet to high operational tempos that increased wear and tear and has cut back routine practices that help identify onboard repair needs, such as ship inspections and assessments.

The service is trying to revamp its maintenance policies to include more inspections, new technology and a shift in culture. Progress is occurring, but changes will take a while to stick, and the service will likely have to deal with budget cuts that make it more difficult to maintain its ships, Navy and industry officials said.

“I think the Navy is doing all the right things to correct what was undone and to improve the processes, but they’ve had a 10-year problem, and what they institutionalized takes time to work through the system,” said retired Rear Adm. Joe Carnevale, senior defense advisor to the Shipbuilders Council of America. “There’s a big time lag between implementing all of these initiatives and getting ship availabilities improved.”

A 2010 fleet review panel found that many actions led to degraded surface force readiness. The Navy instituted a shorter period of time to complete repairs, reduced the number of maintenance assessments and cut back training. It also underestimated the amount of funding needed to properly maintain ships, the panel found.

Since then, the Navy has made inroads, establishing the Surface Maintenance Engineering Planning Program (SURFMEPP) to help manage lifecycle maintenance for ships and the Navy Regional Maintenance Center Command (RMC) to oversee its execution. 

 In 2012, the service published a new surface force readiness manual requiring that a material inspection must take place after the basic phase, which is when a ship is certified that it can execute its mission. Ships will have to go through either the thorough INSURV inspection, or one conducted by a type commander, who controls the vessel before it is deployed.

But implementation of the manual could be hampered by continued high operational tempos and a lack of staff, said a 2012 study by the Government Accountability Office. This could lead to deferments in lifecycle maintenance and increased costs, it said.

High operational tempo has long been a problem. It limits the amount of time the Navy has to conduct assessments, wears down the ship, and puts added strain on the crew, who may not have enough time to do maintenance, Carnevale said.

The previous decade was also marked by deferrals in maintenance that made it more difficult for industry to repair ships within the scheduled availability, Carnevale said. Defense contractors were often left with ships that had enormous amounts of “growth work,” or unplanned maintenance.

For example, workers planning to repair a diesel engine would sometimes find corrosion in its foundation. In order to replace the steel in the foundation, the crew must remove the gas in the fuel tank below deck to prevent explosions. They then would find corrosion in the fuel tank, he said.

The Navy also eliminated zone inspections — a periodic check up of each compartment by the crew that can help find corrosion or damage to steel. Regular inspections of tanks and gas frames were also limited or done away with, Carnevale said.

“They used to have a team of senior enlisted officers come onboard the ship to do exams that were associated with various systems … and these visits, they were done away with, figuring this was just a burden on the fleet,” Carnevale said. “The value in terms of training the sailors and the crew was underestimated, and the value of preparing the ships for an availability … was underestimated.”

The Navy hopes new readiness policies will restore a more organized way of doing maintenance.

There needs to be continued focus on aligning the fleet and type commands on advanced planning, contracting and execution of maintenance needs, said Rear Adm. David Gale, commander of Navy Regional Maintenance Command.

“It translates into an awful lot of … maintenance planning 101,” he said in a January speech at the Surface Navy Association National Symposium in Arlington, Va. “It starts with process discipline. It starts with resourcing and training the workforce, standardizing processes and policies across that effort.”

Gale pointed to some areas of progress. For example, total ship readiness assessments, which identify what needs to be done while a ship is in port, are fully funded for the first time in 2013, he said.

“We’re very much on a growth curve to get the assessment program right and to get it properly meshed up with the training timelines. But when we do that, I think we’re going to have a very effective way of assessing our ships … [and] putting them back in the sea at the end of the availability ready to go,” he said.

The command has also added 600 civilian workers and has invested in training its personnel, he said.

Of all the maintenance issues, the most persistent is corrosion. The service spends $7 billion a year on tackling the problem, Rear Adm. Matthew Klunder, chief of naval research at the Office of Naval Research, said at the symposium.

Rear Adm. David Thomas, commander of Naval Surface Force Atlantic, called it “the biggest thing that I’ve got to pay for out of pocket.”

The Navy formed a corrosion control assist team to train crews how to do maintenance at sea. During fiscal year 2012, the team helped repair 801 shipboard tools, taught corrosion prevention to 1,774 sailors and oversaw sailors executing corrosion control practices on 236,000 square feet onboard ships, said Navy Lt. Commander Bill Urban, spokesman for Naval Surface Force Atlantic. The team has saved the Navy $27 million.

The service is also looking at technology to ameliorate the corrosion problem, including a new topside coating developed by ONR. This new polysiloxane paint — which has a backbone of two silicon atoms bonded to an oxygen atom — is already oxidized before it is used on the ship, said Larry Schuette, director of innovation at ONR. This makes it more resistant to corrosion, harsh weather and ultraviolet light.

Vice Adm. Tom Copeman, commander of naval surface forces, in December mandated the polysiloxane coating for future surface ship maintenance, Schuette said in an interview with National Defense.

The paint was developed over a 15-year period with NCP Coatings Inc., a Niles, Mich.-based business that makes military and industrial paints.

The next steps will involve qualifying vendors to make the paint, to which the Navy owns the intellectual property rights, Schuette said.  It will probably take about eight years for all ships to be repainted.

Schuette said the new coating exemplifies what ONR wants to see: It’s inexpensive and does not require a lot of sailor labor or time pierside.

The paint costs about 30 percent more per gallon, but it only takes two coats instead of three, Schuette said. “You end up saving about 30 percent in materials.” More importantly, the coating only has to be reapplied every five years instead of every year, he added.

The coating is already applied in limited amounts on the USS Cape Saint George, USS Gunston Hall, USS Hopper, USS Mesa Verde and the USS Oak Hill as part of technology demonstrations.

ONR is also currently working to solve various problems, including how the Navy can do maintenance on the shafts of a ship without having to put it in dry dock, reducing corrosion on the shafts, and making better watertight doors, Schuette said.

“We’ve got some watertight doors out in trials now that require much less maintenance than a standard watertight door, are much lighter and much cheaper. And so we’re trying to qualify those doors so that the Navy will consider those for future ships,” he said. 

It is also looking at ways to strengthen pipes that are rusting, he said. “Instead of digging the pipes out … we’re looking at ways to put liners in pipes. If we could do that, we wouldn’t have to re-pipe ships.”

Other Navy officials said the service could improve ship readiness and maintenance by instilling good habits.

For instance, fresh water was once a scarce resource aboard ships, but the availability of reverse osmosis units makes it possible to do regular fresh water washes that help prevent corrosion, Thomas said.

“If we can make it part of our ethos, part of our normal way of doing business to occasionally wash down our ships with freshwater, which most ships do anyway … I really think that we could add additional years to the lifecycle and the service life of our ships,” he said.

The Navy is also pushing condition-based maintenance for the littoral combat ship, meaning that crews will repair equipment when it starts to deteriorate, said Rear Adm. Dave Lewis, the Navy’s program executive officer for ships.

“The idea here is fix it before it breaks,” he said. Sailors don’t need to wait to fix a piece of equipment, “most equipment will tell you when it’s not feeling well.”

Despite efforts to improve readiness, the maintenance problems could get worse before they get better. The Navy in February announced it was cutting $604 million in maintenance work for its ships in response to the current fiscal crisis.

Sequestration or a continuing resolution at fiscal year 2012 levels could also cause significant availability cancelations, Carnevale said, but even more importantly, it could cost the maintenance industry a loss in expertise. 

“The churn in the workforce is industry’s ongoing, continuing biggest concern.” Companies may not be able to rehire laid off workers he said.

Carnevale said he worries the Navy could cut back funding and revert to a less efficient manner of doing surface ship maintenance and modernization.

“The rule of thumb when I was a young officer decades ago was that ... an availability could only be successful if the growth in the work was less than 15 percent,” Carnevale said. “We’re not there yet, but we’re trending in the right direction.

Although new inspections will help limit the growth in work, there are still bureaucratic obstacles in place that hamper efficient maintenance and cost savings, Carnevale said.

 “They spend $1,000 in manpower to save the Navy $100 in expected cost. Now how does that make any sense? But they can go back and say, ‘I dotted every I, I crossed every T, and I held the contractor responsible,’” he said, noting that sometimes the projected savings would not result in actual savings.

However, Gale implied the Navy would continue to be on the look out for any inefficiencies in maintenance programs.

“I think we should always be asking ourselves, ‘where did the money go?’” Gale said. “I think we’ll find that we’re spending money on things that were not budgeted for.”

Photo Credit: Thinkstock

Topics: Defense Department, DOD Budget, Logistics, Shipbuilding

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