WASHINGTON — The U.S. Navy has made noticeable improvements in its ability to maintain surface ships — but hasn’t eliminated the repair period overruns as the chief of naval operations wanted.
High-profile reviews in 2010 and again in 2017 outlined the decline of surface navy readiness, including a downturn in ship material readiness. Maintenance periods would run long, some items would be skipped to get ships back out to the fleet, the ships would operate in this sub-optimal condition, and they’d show up to their next maintenance availability with an even longer list of planned and unplanned work to try to squeeze into that availability.
In 2018, just 29% of ships came out of their maintenance availabilities on time, former head of the surface navy Vice Adm. Rich Brown said at the 2020 Surface Navy Association annual conference.
Since that time, the Navy has invested in several initiatives to look at its maintenance practices, its inventory of spare parts, its planned timelines to accomplish maintenance tasks and more, all in an effort to get ships out of repair yards on a shorter and more predictable schedule.
In a Jan. 8 call with reporters ahead of this year’s SNA conference, Commander of Naval Surface Forces Vice Adm. Roy Kitchener said that, “since 2019 ... we reduced our days of maintenance delay by about 41%. On-time completion coming out of the shipyards is steadily increasing from 34% in [fiscal 2019] to a projected 59% for all the 2021 availabilities,” noting that number remains an estimate because some began in FY21 but will be completed later this fiscal year.
Though the performance has improved, it’s still not in line with where leaders expected to be a year or two ago when they got serious about improving surface ship maintenance at private shipyards.
At the 2020 SNA conference, Kitchener’s predecessor, Brown, said he expected 71% of ships to come out of maintenance on time in 2020. And in a December 2019 fragmentary order, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday wrote, “Our goal is to improve productivity, reduce lost days through depot availability extensions by 80% in FY20 compared with FY19, and eliminate lost days through depot extensions by the end of FY21.”
Those goals predate the COVID-19 pandemic, and the virus and its effects on the workforce and supply chain have presented additional challenges. Still, Kitchener acknowledged in the media roundtable the Navy is still moving to get closer to the CNO’s goals.
“I’m not by any means telling you that I’m satisfied with those numbers. I think there’s a lot more work to do to get better at that. But I think we’re starting to really focus in on the right things to measure and the right things to leverage as we continue to find ways to improve our shipyard availabilities,” Kitchener said.
He told Defense News during the call the surface navy’s original efforts were focused on planning.
“We wanted to make sure that we were asking industry to do something that was within their capability. So we looked at getting the material there on time, we looked at making sure that we were getting the right work package put together and we got the duration right,” he said. “When we went into execution mode on all of these things, we found that, okay, pulling those levers gets us so far, and then we seem to be kind of hitting a wall.”
He said more recent efforts have focused on execution, looking at the integrated production schedules and tightening the relationship between the Navy and industry teams involved in achieving that combined schedule. He said a ship repair schedule is inherently fluid, since any hiccup that arises has ripple effects and could change when another work item can be accomplished, so “it’s really important that those teams do that schedule every day.”
Kitchener said the team is also working to not only limit growth work — items that weren’t in the plan, but that arise as the ship is unbuttoned and new problems are discovered — but also to find it before reaching the 40% mark of the availability’s timeline, which Kitchener said is key to reaching on-time delivery.
“The two things I’m most interested in are those schedules, those integrated production schedules, making sure they’re ready to go before we start and they remain updated consistently through,” Kitchener said. “Then the second thing … is we’ve asked to look at [the industrial partners’] manpower data, the people that they put on a project, and we’re getting that data, we’re measuring it, we’re understanding it so that we all have full transparency on where shortfalls are and what the impact would be.”
These efforts are primarily focused on surface combatants like cruisers and destroyers as well as amphibious ships, all of which have established class maintenance plans and decades of data the Navy can use.
An emerging challenge, Kitchener said during the same call, is the littoral combat ship, which is newer to the fleet. Though industry has some experience with the ships, it’s been mostly limited to the ships’ post-shakedown availabilities (PSA), or their first maintenance period after being delivered to the fleet and going through at-sea trials. Some of the older LCSs have recently reached their first major repair periods, or chief of naval operations (CNO) availabilities.
“We underestimated some of the durations, the length of availabilities, based on some of the unique systems like the waterjet repairs,” Kitchener said of these first few CNO availabilities for the LCSs. “There’s a learning curve there, as there is for all ships. So that’s something that we need to kind of make sure that we learn the right lessons and quickly turn them around and get [the lessons] into the next ships.”
Megan Eckstein is the naval warfare reporter at Defense News. She has covered military news since 2009, with a focus on U.S. Navy and Marine Corps operations, acquisition programs, and budgets. She has reported from four geographic fleets and is happiest when she’s filing stories from a ship. Megan is a University of Maryland alumna.