This Video About The Navy's Decaying Shipyards Makes Its 355 Ship Goal Seem Laughable

The Navy has continued to prioritize procurement over the ability to maintain the fleet it already has. 

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MC1 Emmitt J. Hawks—U.S. Navy

We have often talked about the Pentagon's chronic disinterest in taking care of and making ready for combat the weapons it already has before buying new and even more costly ones. This culture of prioritization of procurement of new hardware over the readiness and maintenance of hardware has improved somewhat under Defense Secretary Mattis, but it still remains a looming issue as the services say they don't have enough money to be ready for the wars of today and arm themselves for the wars of tomorrow. 

Fixation on arbitrary hardware goals can magnify this issue as procurement of weapon systems to meet those goals without even having a plan to support them once they are in inventory can lead to waste on a massive scale. Take the Navy'sproposed 355 ship fleet. This goal, supposedly to be obtained in the coming decade or two, is what the Navy says it needs to meet its increasing mission demands around the globe. This sounds all well and good, but upon closer examination the goal seems to be more of a monolithic gimmick than a rational strategy as there are so many other factors to take into account when fielding a force to meet future demands than just volume of hulls and force mix. One of those factors is the capacity of the Navy's shipyards to handle such a fleet. Ships, especially highly complex ones, require massive amounts of maintenance to remain viable. Without that maintenance they turn into floating hulks, and the world's most expensive ones at that. 

According to the Government Accountability Office, the Navy's fleet dreams far outmatch their investments in the critical but unglamorous infrastructure needed to support them. The GAO has put out a fabulous and troubling video on the subject that is really a must watch:

In detailing the realities of the Navy's decaying naval yards, the GAO also seems to be inadvertently underlining just how strangely out of touch the Navy is with the plausibility of its own banner strategic policy.

Just a few highlights from the short video:

  • At one time the Navy had 13 shipyards, but now it has just four.
  • None of these facilities were built to sustain a modern Navy.
  • There is nearly a $5B maintenance backlog alone and this estimate is likely far less than the actual cost.
  • Uses old inadequate equipment on high-tech vessels.
  • Drydocks are on average 89 years old and are in poor condition.
  • Due to the lack of dry dock capacity, the Navy won't be able to perform a third of its scheduled aircraft carrier and submarine maintenance projects over the next two decades.
  • Rising sea levels pose a threat to old dry docks.
  • The Navy says it will take nearly two decades to address these issues, but GAO says it will take longer. By that time the fleet will have ballooned putting more pressure on these tired facilities.
  • As of now the Navy is only funding roughly half the cost just to keep up maintenance on their own naval shipyards. 
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The GAO has issued a full report on this problem and it outlines far more than the video includes. From its highlights page:

"Similarly, a Navy analysis shows that the average age of shipyard capital equipment now exceeds its expected useful life.Partly as a result of their poor condition, the shipyards have not been fully meeting the Navy’s operational needs. In fiscal years 2000 through 2016, inadequate facilities and equipment led to maintenance delays that contributed in part to more than 1,300 lost operational days—days when ships were unavailable for operations—for aircraft carriers and 12,500 lost operational days for submarines (see figure). The Navy estimates that it will be unable to conduct73 of 218 maintenance periods over the next 23 fiscal years due to insufficient capacity and other deficiencies.

Though the Navy has developed detailed plans for capital investment in facilities and equipment at the shipyards that attempt to prioritize their investment strategies, this approach does not fully address the shipyards’ challenges, in part because the plans are missing key elements. Missing elements include analytically-based goals and metrics, a full identification of the shipyards’ resource needs, regular management reviews of progress, and reporting on progress to key decision makers and Congress. For example, the Navy estimates that it will need at least $9.0 billion in capital investment over the next12 fiscal years, but this estimate does not account for all expected costs, such as those for planning and modernizing the shipyards’ utility infrastructure. Unless it adopts a comprehensive, results-oriented approach to addressing its capital investment needs, the Navy risks continued deterioration of its shipyards, hindering its ability to efficiently and effectively support Navy readiness over the long term."

You can read the full report here, but suffice it to say this damning review puts the Navy's ability to sustain a 355 ship Navy in question, that is if it can actually procure one. As we have learned all too well, continued high-tempo operational rates and further deferred maintenance will only magnify the issue. 

The solution to the issue is creating a realistic direct investment structure for these facilities that targets long-term usability over short-term fixes. Without really tackling the problem the Navy can buy all the ships it wants but it won't be able to keep them operational, and this especially affects the US nuclear submarine and aircraft carrier fleets, both of which are set to grow in the near term and are absolutely critical to national security. 

The big questions that the report doesn't address are not only how did the Navy's shipyards even get to this state of decay, but how on earth did the Navy brass think they could sustain their 355 ship fleet without emergency investments into them? Was this just nearsighted incompetence or an attempt for a handout to the shipbuilding industry on a massive scale?

Regardless, these facilities are an embarrassment. We expect to see this type of thing in Russia, not in facilities that are critical to supporting the world's most powerful and technologically advanced Navy. The Navy should be totally realistic about this issue and cut procurement if they have to in order to rapidly update these facilities to more modern and sustainable standards. 

Doing it piecemeal over decades is not the answer. Cut the LCS buy to one less ship a year to make it happen. That would be a far more logical and beneficial investment in the Navy's future.

Contact the author: Tyler@thedrive.com