CORONAVIRUS NEWS: Navy Expects COVID-19 Pandemic to Affect Shipbuilding

By Jon Harper
USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71)

Navy photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Nicholas Huynh

The coronavirus pandemic that has upended many aspects of American life over the past two weeks is expected to impact Navy shipbuilding, service leaders said March 24.

Governors in a number of states have closed all non-essential businesses to try to contain the outbreak which has spread across the country. The U.S. government has identified the defense industry as a critical infrastructure sector and called on contractors to keep operating.

“Companies aligned with the essential critical infrastructure workforce definition are expected to maintain their normal work schedules,” Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment Ellen Lord said in a March 20 memo to the defense industrial base. “If your contract or subcontract supports the development, production, testing, fielding or sustainment of our weapon systems/software systems, or the infrastructure to support those activities, [your efforts] are considered critical infrastructure. If your efforts support manning, training, equipping, deploying, or supporting our military forces, your work is considered critical infrastructure.”

However, some disruptions might be unavoidable, Navy leaders suggested during a March 24 briefing with reporters at the Pentagon.

“As far as production capacity, to date we haven’t seen any sort of perturbations in that right now,” Acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly said. “But we are anticipating that there will be and we’re looking at what that might cost with respect to helping the shipyards maintain their viability if they have to slow down and miss certain production milestones.”

The industrial base, including its workforce, is a major concern right now as the service hopes to keep public and private shipyards up and running to build new ships and maintain existing ones.

“We rely particularly on our shipyards and our depots, both the ones that are part of the Navy infrastructure but also part of the … commercial industrial base,” Modly said. “We need them to continue to operate because you can’t lose those skills. We have to keep them maintained.”

Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Research, Development and Acquisition James “Hondo” Geurts is talking to company CEOs on daily basis, Modly noted.

“We’ve been very clear with them” about the Navy’s objectives, he said. “We are also concerned about the health of their people. We don’t want them putting them at risk either. But we just need to be aware of what they’re doing in that regard so that we can adjust our expectations about what they can deliver and when they can deliver.”

Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Michael Gilday said service leaders’ discussions with industry executives about their ability to maintain repair and production capability are critical for providing situational awareness.

“What you’re seeing from all the large primes is they’re creating their own … task forces to take a look at what the supply chain looks like to keep all of those production lines running, and to see where we might be incurring risk out through, let’s say, 2021 so that we can then prioritize and the secretary can then prioritize what type of work that we need to do,” he said.

Gilday praised workers such as welders, ship fitters and others for continuing to stay on the job under challenging circumstances.

Meanwhile, the Navy is trying to deal with novel coronavirus outbreaks within its own ranks. The service is canceling some exercises, restricting port visits overseas and practicing social distancing.

It has 86 active cases including 57 military servicemembers, 13 Navy civilians, 11 dependents and five contractors. Three cases have been confirmed on the USS Theodore Roosevelt aircraft carrier, the first cases discovered on a ship that’s deployed. Those individuals have been quarantined and were expected to be flown off the ship March 24. People who had contact with them are being quarantined as well, Modly said.

Gilday said the pandemic has not derailed any Navy operations thus far.

“The impacts to readiness force-wide have been low, but that’s not to say that this [number of cases] couldn’t spike at any given time,” he said. “We continue to watch this very closely at every ship, squadron and submarine.”

Enhanced COVID-19 screening measures have been implemented for crews of ballistic missile submarines before they deploy, Gilday noted. The vessels are considered the most survivable leg of the U.S. nuclear force and they are deployed undersea for months at a time with crew members working and living in close quarters.

Gilday was asked what the Navy would do if there were confirmed cases on a submarine already underway.

“We’d take each of those cases individually and we would make a decision to do what’s right in terms of maintaining the safety and sustaining the safety of our people,” he said. “Without healthy people on a ship we can’t do the mission, and so that would drive a decision to pull in port or to transfer personnel.”



Topics: Navy News

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