Middle East Turmoil Disrupts Navy’s Ship Maintenance Plan

By Yasmin Tadjdeh
The Navy has long faced a backlog of ships awaiting maintenance. High operational tempos have forced vessels to deploy longer while repair schedules are shifted to the right.

Despite the fact that the Navy has come up with new maintenance plans, actors like the Islamic State — also known as ISIL or ISIS — may compromise its ability to get ships repaired on schedule.

Last year was “unusually active” in terms of new threats and missions, said retired Navy Vice Adm. Peter Daly, CEO of the United States Naval Institute. The biggest by far was the rise of ISIL.

The focus on counter-ISIL missions could potentially damage the Navy’s efforts at creating a predictable maintenance schedule, Daly said. “Nobody saw this ISIS thing a year ago,” he noted. Navy vessels play a key role in the effort as many U.S. air assets fly off the decks of carriers.

Before ISIL entered the spotlight, Navy officials expected there to be a cutback in missions in the Middle East as the combat operation ended in Afghanistan in 2014.

“The people who are planning maintenance and planning schedules might say, ‘OK, there’s going to be less demand when that winds down,’” Daly said. “Well, no sooner does that start to wind down then ISIS pops up.”

Increased missions in the Middle East will likely force carrier strike groups to extend their missions in theater, he noted, potentially throwing off planned schedules.

“In truth, ISIS didn’t get the memo,” Daly said in jest. “They didn’t know about the big maintenance plan.”

Compounding this problem are longstanding barriers to keeping planned maintenance on schedule.

The root of the problem is that the demand for ships exceeds the supply, Daly said.

“You’ve got this tension that exists between the combatant commanders who are out there — and they’re demanding certain ships and airplanes from the Navy and the other services — and the suppliers,” Daly said. “The providers are the service chiefs and they’re the ones that have to man, train, … equip and generate those forces.”

The combatant commanders and the service chiefs have polar opposite views when it comes to maintenance, Daly noted. The commanders are fiscally unrestrained, have a short-term outlook — often only a year out — and are regionally focused in places such as Central Command or Pacific Command. But the service chiefs are at the other end of that spectrum. “They’re absolutely fiscally constrained. They get a budget, a top line, and they have to balance.” Additionally, they are looking out 15 years or more into the future.

This creates a tug of war that can often result in ships deploying without full repairs, Daly said.

“You might have these very elegant plans to get all this done … [but] then ships get extended, another ship gets accelerated and you experience this compression. Then in that compression you either have to save tasks for later, or not meet the mission requirements. That’s the situation that they’re in,” he said.

The Navy already is stretched thin as it tends to a variety of missions in the Middle East, Europe and the Asia-Pacific region, he noted.

Last year, then-commander of U.S. Fleet Forces Command Adm. Bill Gortney, announced a scheme called the Optimized Fleet Response Plan (O-FRP) that sought to create predictable schedules for deployments and maintenance of carrier strike groups over a 36-month period. Under the plan, carrier strike groups would undergo maintenance and deployment on the same schedule. Additionally, sailors would be deployed for eight months.

The first group under O-FRP was set to be the Harry S Truman carrier strike group, but last fall the Navy announced it would swap the Truman with the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower because of maintenance delays.

“As USFF [U.S. Fleet Forces Command] implements the Optimized Fleet Response Plan, a careful analysis of fleet maintenance, training and operational schedules determined that changing Truman and Eisenhower’s long-term schedules would better enable the Navy to provide ready forces for national security taskings,” a Navy news release said. “While changing Truman and Eisenhower’s schedules impacts the ships’ sailors and families, the change ultimately provides better predictability Navy-wide.”

The O-FRP revolves around a 36-month schedule for each carrier strike group, and the Navy is planning three cycles ahead over nine years, said Rear Adm. Richard Berkey, director of fleet maintenance at U.S. Fleet Forces Command.

“Some people have the misconception that it’s the same ship, [the] same carrier … all lined up for that entire nine years. It’s not that. But it’s looking at a nine-year plan, trying to keep that group together as much as possible,” he said during a panel discussion on ship maintenance at the Surface Navy Association’s annual conference in Washington, D.C.

O-FRP “enables that strike group to be most efficient. So as opposed to looking at a singular ship …. [and] what maintenance and modernization has to be done, we’re looking at it as a strike group unit,” he said.

The Navy also recently developed a new model for Marine Corps expeditionary strike group schedules that will give amphibious ships a longer maintenance period, Berkey said.

“That’s a lot of time to be able to get the execution team and the modernization team … [the] successes they need,” he said. “We are able to carve that out by looking long term, not just at the maintenance but in the workup cycles, the training, the deployments.”

Rear Adm. Lawrence Creevy, deputy commander for surface warfare at Naval Sea Systems Command, said that all of his team’s work centers on executing O-FRP.

That “means driving discipline into the process and reducing the churn to achieve predictability and reliability,” he said.

After years of deploying ships back to back, O-FRP is sorely needed, said Vice Adm. William Hilarides, commander of Naval Sea Systems Command.

“O-FRP, from my point of view, gives us the stable, predictable schedule that let us plan the maintenance and actually do it the way we planned it.”

Daly said the policy is useful, but the Navy must be mindful of staying on track.

“At the top level, the policy is good in that you’re trying to match the rhythm to the resources,” he said. But “it’s not good if you don’t control the rhythm and you don’t control the resources. So I think that’s the conundrum for the Navy. … It can put together an exquisitely wonderful plan … but then things happen and reality intrudes.”

The scheduling problems compounded during the early to mid-2000s after the Navy cut back on ship maintenance, Daly said. It resulted in a cascading effect of ships in disrepair that continues today.

“They weren’t doing all the checks for the timeframe required, and there wasn’t enough rigor of keeping track of what wasn’t done so you could go back and get it at the next pump,” he said.

“Once you get into a cycle like this, it takes you years to get out of it,” Daly said. “It doesn’t mean you can’t get out of it, but you have to carefully reintroduce and get that maintenance done while still executing and meeting the core requirements.”

In 2009 and 2010, maintenance funding was pumped back up, he noted, but it can take five to seven years to return to predictability.

Recently, Daly spoke with a fleet commander who noted that two years ago he would bring a ship in theater and it would immediately need maintenance attention. Now, however, vessels are coming in ready.

“That’s a sign of health, and that’s where you want to be. You want to be deploying ready, trained forces to meet the mission requirements. And if you start to cut corners, you start to see problems,” he said.

Making it to a predictable workload is critical for the various Navy shipyards around the country, said Rear Adm. Mark Whitney, deputy commander of logistics, maintenance and industrial operations at Naval Sea Systems Command.

It is impossible to be completely stable, but it is necessary that the Navy strives for it, he said. Predicting and accounting for unscheduled maintenance throughout a year allows shipyards to develop and execute plans to stay on track, he added.

Shipyards also face a looming personnel problem, Whitney said. Much of its senior workforce has or will retire soon. Navy leadership is replacing those positions with the right workers, but “they don’t have the same level of experience that maybe we enjoyed over the course of the last several decades.” Hiring and training skilled personnel will be of utmost importance going forward, he noted.

One way to get ships in and out on time is by having clear requirements, said Rear Adm. William Galinis, commander of the Navy Regional Maintenance Center. The United States has four regional maintenance centers: San Diego; Norfolk, Virginia; Mayport, Florida; and Naples, Italy.

“The only priority for the surface warfare community [is] ... war fighting first. And I will tell you, that’s not lost on the maintenance team. To us, what that means is providing combat-ready ships,” he said. “That means starting availabilities on time, ending availabilities on time, which translates to identifying and stabilizing requirements up front.”

Working with industry and crafting robust contracts are necessary in order to have effective schedules, he noted.

In 2014, the regional maintenance centers contracted $2.7 billion worth of maintenance work to industry around the world, he said.

Topics: Shipbuilding, Aircraft Carriers

Comments (0)

Retype the CAPTCHA code from the image
Change the CAPTCHA codeSpeak the CAPTCHA code
Please enter the text displayed in the image.