Navy’s Holy Grail: Low-Maintenance Ships, Highly Skilled Sailors

By Sandra I. Erwin

In his guidance to sailors and civilians, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert drives the point home that being ready to deploy and fight wars is the “essence of why we have a Navy.”

A decade of nonstop combat deployments and a budget crunch that began in 2010 have tested the Navy’s ability to stay ready, and its leaders worry that the fleet will have a tough time keeping up with future challenges.

Force size is not the issue. The Navy employs 450,000 sailors (active and reservists), 200,000 civilians, and owns a fleet of 283 ships and 3,700 aircraft. But the future Navy needs to think differently about how it buys ships and crews are trained, senior officials said. They fear the fleet is weighed down by ships that are too maintenance-intensive and operated by crews that lack many of the specialized skills that will be increasingly needed as naval systems become more technologically complex.

Shipyard downtime is a huge problem for the Navy, especially as vessels get older and their weapons become outdated, said Vice Adm. Tom Copeman, commander of naval surface forces at U.S. Pacific Command.

The future Navy needs “modular” ships, with hulls and weapons systems built independently so they can be updated without having to tear down and reconstruct the ship, Copeman said at the Surface Navy Association annual symposium in Arlington, Va.

“There are ways to build ships so you don’t have to cut them in half and take them offline for a year and a half to improve them,” he said. “We need to shorten the cycle for modernization.”

Fleet commanders have taken heed of Greenert’s “war fighting first” mantra, said Copeman, but they find that logistics burdens get in the way of combat readiness. The Navy took a modernization and maintenance “holiday” from 2003 to 2008 because of deployment demands. The sequester budget cuts in 2013 added to the backlog. Catching up on so much delayed ship maintenance, said Copeman, “gets way expensive.”

The rising cost of updating weapon systems also is impinging on fleet readiness as it compels the Navy to retire hulls that are still serviceable, said Rear Adm. Thomas S. Rowden, director of the Navy’s surface warfare division. “What’s front and center in my brain is understanding that you have to get the ship to its expected service life,” he said. Hulls typically are built to last for decades but weapons become obsolete more quickly. “The weapons have to outpace the threat,” said Rowden. “In the past, we have had to retire ships prematurely because we could not afford to upgrade the weapon systems,” he said. “We need ships that can get to their expected service life.”

Navy and Marine Corps officials are contemplating how to design and build future warships so they are modular and have common components across the fleet.

Rowden said ship programs must break the link between the combat system and the hull in order to lower the cost of upgrades. “The intrusive nature of current modernization efforts costs too much and takes too long to complete,” he wrote in an article published by the U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings. “The extensive cutting of bulkheads, the movement of major equipment bolted and welded to decks, overheads, and bulkheads, and the creation of holes in the skin of the ship to enable such efforts, will be largely replaced by ships designed with moveable and reconfigurable spaces.”

If the goal is to modernize the fleet for the 2030 decade, the Navy needs to start now. According to Adm. Samuel Locklear III, commander of U.S. Pacific Command, it takes about 17 years from the time a ship is imagined until it is ready for deployment.

The Navy also must invest in sailor training, Copeman said. Improved skills are needed not only in ship maintenance but also in basic war fighting at sea, he said. 

Not having enough people with the “correct skills and experiences on the ships” is degrading the readiness of the surface fleet, said Copeman. “We do a lot of cross decks in the surface community,” he said. Cross decking is the practice of reassigning a ship’s crew to another vessel because there are not enough skilled crews to man deployed ships. “We do that as ships get ready to go out the door for certain skills we don’t have enough of,” said Copeman. Skilled sailors are in short supply for several reasons, such as lack of training time, financial incentives that promote certain skills over others, and the demand in the civilian job market.

A skills deficit can be debilitating, he said. “If you have people who know how to fix things, you can do anything.”

Copeman is spearheading the creation of a Top Gun-like school for surface fleet officers. If approved, it would be called Naval Surface Expeditionary Warfare Command. He said he is confident the Navy will make it happen. “There is no command in the surface Navy tasked with looking at developing training tactics and techniques for our missions,” he said. “We have to have a solid methodology to develop warfare skills.” Today, “we have good tacticians but not by design, but by chance, depending on what ship they were assigned to.” It behooves the Navy to “make sure we provide the training and equipment so we use these expensive warships to the best of our ability.”

Advanced technical education will no longer be a luxury, but a necessity in the future force, Greenert said. An emerging discipline known as EMMW, or electromagnetic maneuver warfare, is going to shape how Navy ships defend themselves from enemy attack.

“We are not going to be able to shoot down everything that is shot at us,” Greenert said. “We have to get into the electromagnetic spectrum,” he added. That means electronically disabling enemy weapons rather than hitting them with a kinetic weapon. “We have to learn how to do that,” said Greenert. Sailors are going to have to go to school and become proficient in electronic warfare so they can better manage the energy-emitting equipment on ships and are able to discriminate friendly from enemy signals. “We have to know our signature,” said Greenert. “If someone is aiming a cruise missile at us, we are better off jamming or spoofing it than trying to go find something that can keep up with it. We’ve got to get onboard on this thing.”

Topics: Defense Department, DOD Leadership, Expeditionary Warfare, Shipbuilding, Surface Ships, Simulation Modeling Wargaming and Training, Live Training

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