NORFOLK, Va. — Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday has long insisted he must first prioritize the readiness of today’s fleet, followed by increasing its lethality and, lastly, growing the size of the fleet.

But maintenance issues are hindering the East Coast fleet’s readiness, according to Adm. Daryl Caudle, who leads U.S. Fleet Forces Command. Certainly, there’s been progress, he said, but there’s a long way to go in ensuring there are enough ready forces to cover routine deployments as well as unplanned calls to surge forward, as his fleet did in February when Russia invaded Ukraine.

Caudle spoke to Defense News in May in his office at Naval Support Activity Hampton Roads about the East Coast fleet’s maintenance challenges and the pressure of keeping carrier strike groups ready to meet an increased demand from U.S. European Command.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

How has the CNO’s effort to prioritize readiness over fleet growth in his budget requests affected U.S. Fleet Forces Command?

I applaud CNO Gilday for holding the line on that. It’s very tempting for him and other stakeholders to be pressurized to spend a lot more money on shipbuilding and modernization and weapons and things like that that are going to improve our lethality. But it is the readiness of the Navy I currently own that prevents us from being hollow and allows us to deploy when we need to.

The biggest part of the readiness line is maintenance and sailors. If you can envision a Venn diagram of all the Navy’s current problems and give a reason for those, at the center of that Venn diagram would be maintenance. It either is the core problem that we have, or it is the accelerant by which other problems are made larger. And so it’s something that we take very seriously here in our readiness lines.

Long-term maintenance is one of the primary parts of the readiness problem. We have to continue to emphasize that with our budget requests at Fleet Forces Command. So even though the CNO prioritizes that, if left unchecked by the two fleet commanders, we will see drift in our budget submissions to move funding to shipbuilding, ordnance, modernization and capabilities. And so we work hard to make sure we don’t allow that to happen, and make sure we hold the CNO to his priorities. I agree with him, and I think our budget submissions reflect that.

What are some examples where maintenance is the root cause of other issues?

The good news on maintenance is that our periodic joint fleet maintenance manual availabilities are not on my radar. All surface ships and submarines have a maintenance entitlement that they get to have periodically throughout the year. Each quarter, they’re entitled to a five- to six-week upkeep period. Those are actually executing very well. Ships are going into those; if they don’t have a modernization component to it — I’ll come back to that — but if they’re just a straight stick upkeep or refit period, depending on the ship class, those are executing very well. That has not always been the case, and that’s improved over the last several years.

As far as some things I’m seeing where we’re not performing: Let’s go to the submarine force first. The lack of capacity and the lack of performance at our public and private yards are driving availabilities — these are depot availabilities now — past our class maintenance time frames to such an extent that they have consumed all the dry docks. So if I have an emergent issue, I don’t really have good options to bring in units for those things that may be emergent dry-docking repairs. They have also forced ships — because submarines expire, their hulls expire — for them to be tied up alongside waiting on their availability to start because there’s no place to put them. We call those idle submarines.

The number of idle submarines has crept up over time. They fluctuate now between five to, worst case, it got to a point we were at about nine out. So these are submarines just sitting pierside because the hulls expired, they can’t submerge and they’re not ready to go into their depot availability. This backlog is causing me to lose fleet size due to this problem.

[Regarding the] surface navy: If you think about our Optimized Fleet Response Plan, it’s a three-year cycle in general — of course, it’s a tailorable plan — but I should see a surface ship rolling into deployment about every three years. Well, what we’re seeing now is something about nine months past that; we’re seeing about 45 months per surface ship on average.

If you pull the string on what’s causing that, it is these availabilities where a modernization program is being taken on. Something like the Consolidated Afloat Networks and Enterprise Services program, where that’s going longer than the maintenance entitlement would allow. And because those go long, then I’m not getting the three-year turnaround on the surface ship that I would normally like to see.

The East Coast carrier fleet in recent years experienced an imbalance in how its ships were used. The aircraft carrier Gerald R. Ford was delayed in joining the fleet, and the carrier George H.W. Bush was in long-term maintenance. Meanwhile, the carriers Harry S. Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower were busy conducting back-to-back deployments and extended deployments. How are you looking at the cumulative effect of this strain on the fleet?

When we get the demand signal to put the carrier back in theater or extend its deployment a couple months, my team at Fleet Forces Command does a really nice job of describing to the chief of naval operations’ staff what the impact of that will be, and those impacts are significant.

It disrupts the class maintenance plan that we have for those carriers, and it disrupts the planning at the yards. When a ship is about to go into a shipyard for a big maintenance period and it doesn’t meet that mark, people think that can just slide to the right, that there’s no real impact. But it doesn’t work that way in the yard. That would be true if I had a lot of dry docks, if I wasn’t oversubscribed. But these things are lockstep in such a puzzled way that sliding them right is highly disruptive to the yard and is highly disruptive to the workforce that’s assigned to that project. It’s highly disruptive to the planning; it is not phased properly with the rest of the work going on in the yard.

The other thing is that I use the ship longer, and the planning assumptions that were originally made on the material condition of the ship are no longer valid because I’ve now used it longer. So it’s not in the same condition as I planned, and because I typically burn it hot and then move it right into the maintenance period, I don’t give the yard sufficient time to diagnose how that additional usage impacted maintenance planning.

From a manning perspective, it also holds that entire strike group there. I was relying on the rotation of those people; those people need to take a knee, get rejuvenated, rest and then replace other sailors in other assignments.

I’m short on ordnance; they are holding the ordnance in theater, I can’t load the ordnance on the next strike group yet. So now I’ve got to really hustle to get over to Naval Weapons Station Yorktown and do the things that I have to do to get the Standard Missile complements and Tomahawk missiles off of those units and onto the future deploying units.

So almost within everything that’s in the PESTO [personnel, equipment, supply, training and ordnance] lines of operations is really impacted from these decisions to keep the carrier there.

What’s in store for those carriers this year?

We’re getting the George H.W. Bush Strike Group ready, so that’s going on in earnest. Ike is in maintenance, and that’s going very well. We expect to see her come out ahead of schedule, so I think that’s a good news story.

I’m currently working with the CNO and my team on what we’re going to do with Ford. You are going to see a deployment later this year with Ford. We’re still figuring out the amount of time. It won’t be a typical Global Force Management deployment, but it will be a deployment, for all intents and purposes, in that she will enter the European theater of operations and she will have air forces onboard, and she will have a complement of cruisers and destroyers with her, too. She will do at least a large-scale exercise in the European theater to demonstrate her capabilities. The details of that are being worked out.

U.S. 6th Fleet will take tactical command, it just won’t be under the Global Force Management system. But from the rest of the world looking at that, it will look like Ford is there. We will do everything we can to bring in allies and partners into those events and to demonstrate the new capabilities that Ford brings to bear, in particular her enhanced strike capabilities.

We are now also working on Ford’s first Global Force Management deployment for next year; that’ll happen in 2023. We’re working the details of that, and we’re looking at a six-month deployment for Ford in that type of structure. We’re trying to place that properly, as you can imagine, to make sure that, to the extent we can, that that’s fit in between Bush’s deployment and Eisenhower’s deployment.

Will you be able to meet increased demand for EUCOM for carrier strike groups?

We’ve made some progress on demand for East Coast carriers. You’re seeing that we are spending more time now, at least for the Atlantic-based carriers, in the European theater compared to the Middle East. I think that’s a positive, and it’s at least answering what the National Defense Strategy envisioned — that we will place our big strike groups against the near-peer competitors.

As a result of the Ukraine-Russia conflict, there is going to be an increased demand for carrier strike group presence in the European theater. I think you’ll see U.S. European Command Commander Gen. Tod Wolters put his request in for that. That will stress me, given where I am with the current carrier laydown. We are working some options for that.

What naval presence will EUCOM need in the short term?

Gen. Wolters was under a defense secretary order to constantly assess the need for additional forces. He finally made a decision that we could bring the destroyers we surged forward home because the conflict stability had gotten to a point where it felt like he could take that risk.

However, at Fleet Forces Command, we were ready to continue that, and we were building out the impacts of that to future strike group deployers, with the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations’ staff, the CNO, and 6th Fleet and Naval Forces Europe. They understood if they took that force early, that might impact strike group deployments later, so that was going on behind the scenes.

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.

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