Good Evening, Drifters
Today was a super fun day. I got a chance to go out and visit the USS North Dakota, my very first visit aboard an active U.S. attack submarine. I also had a chance to listen to what a speed boat sounds like on sonar, and that was nifty. Many of you will know my affinity for the movie and book The Hunt for Red October: Seaman Jones was my favorite character as a kid and remains so to this day so it was a treat to mess around with the sonar.
All that put me in a pretty good mood, so I figured why not spoil it with something that has been grinding my gears since I got back to the Navy beat in 2014: Maintenance. I often tell people that I don't have opinions, I have questions. When it comes to fleet maintenance, I have lots of questions. I've heard a few generations of three- and four-stars now talk about digging out of the maintenance hole, and I've seen little evidence that they're having any success.
Tonight, I'm going to be generous and just focus on surface ship maintenance, because it would get really ugly if I focused on attack submarine maintenance.
So, come with me on a journey back over a few years of talking points and see if you don't reach the conclusions that the Navy's maintenance regime is a dumpster fire. We're going to skip The Hotwash tonight, because this is going to take some time.
In the Navy's 2020 "unfunded priorities" list, it tacked on $161 million in surface ship maintenance money. $110 million of that is for two DDG deferred maintenance availabilities and other "continuous maintenance availabilities." Suspiciously, the cruiser modernizations for Cowpens, Gettysburg, Chosin and Vicksburg are also listed in the unfunded priorities list to the tune of $172 million – this in the same year they asked to decommission six of the oldest cruisers.
It got me to thinking.
Waaaaay back in January 2014, we were told that the solution to the Navy's maintenance problems was the unpredictability of fleet schedules, and that putting stability back in the schedule would create more predictable maintenance schedules. Removing the fluctuations and long deployments would make creating the work packages more effective, would make contracting in time easier and would help the private and public yards plan. This would drive down costs and increase operational availability.
Yes, the Optimized Fleet Response Plan was going to fix shit. I figured let’s trace the arc of the past five or six years of talking points to see how Big Navy has performed over five years and three Fleet Forces commanders since OFRP was rolled out.
A few months before then-Fleet Forces Commander Adm. Bill Gortney rolled out OFRP at the Surface Navy Association meeting, the then-Chief of Naval Operations’ head of warfare systems told an ASNE meeting that the surface fleet had a $2 billion backlog, according to a 2013 Inside Defense article.
Except: "Our challenge right now is that we don't have any flexibility with our money, so the only thing that we can really do is go after it in the operating accounts, " Vice Adm. William Burke said at a presentation to the flagship chapter of the American Society of Naval Engineers at the Washington Navy Yard on March 21. So for now, that money will need to come from a yet-to-be-identified "somewhere else."
"You can look at taking out some force structure and taking better care [of the remainder of the fleet] -- that was our intent with the seven cruisers and the two LSD dock landing ships," Burke said. "That didn't go over too well," he added, to laughter. The Navy had proposed retiring the ships in fiscal years 2013 and 2014, but the House and Senate both included a provision in their FY-13 spending bill to fund the ships' operations, maintenance and modernization for two years.
HO, HO, HO! Trying to retire seven of the Navy's most capable ships is hilarious!
Burke also detailed a six percent annual "fester-factor." That means that if you have $100 of maintenance that is deferred for a year, that maintenance will now cost you $106 dollars. That gest expensive when you need $100 million in maintenance.
Well they didn't cash in ships for maintenance because Navy Secretary Ray Mabus wouldn't let them trade force structure. He felt, and often expressed, that if the Navy's missions were not going to go away, and they were just extending deployments for fewer and fewer ships, the only way to break the cycle was to grow the Navy.
Throughout the last six-odd years since the talking points have ranged from optimistic predictions of a turn-around to repetitive promises of more predictable work schedules driving down work spans and costs.
Let's go to the tape:
Jan 15, 2014, Navy.mil blog post: What is the Optimized Fleet Response Plan and What Will It Accomplish?
Exceprt: Navy leadership has been working to address these issues. U.S. Fleet forces and Pacific Fleet have worked together to develop the Optimized Fleet Response Plan, or O-FRP. O-FRP is a full realignment of the Fleet’s maintenance, training and deployment cycles to fit in a standard 36-month rotation.
O-FRP has been developed to enhance the stability and predictability for our Sailors and families by aligning carrier strike group assets to a new 36-month training and deployment cycle. Beginning in fiscal year ’15, all required maintenance, training, evaluations and a single eight-month deployment will be efficiently scheduled throughout the cycle to drive down costs and increase overall fleet readiness.
Then the Navy started trying to create spreadsheets that would show the yards the expected workloads so they could plan better.
Sept. 2, 2015, USNI News article: Navy Refining Surface Ship Master Plan to Balance Shipyard, Operational Needs
Exceprt: The Navy’s maintenance and operational communities have completed the first iterations of a surface ship master plan for maintenance and modernization work, in the hopes of balancing out peaks and valleys in shipyard workload without impacting operational needs.
in FY 2014 several Navy organizations came together to try to better understand shipyard workloads and look for ways to proactively manage work levels.
SEA 21, NAVSEA’s surface ship lifecycle maintenance organization, began an availability duration analysis to understand the relationship between the work scope and how much time the yard would need. That data then fed into the workload forecasting effort conducted by Galinis as commander of the regional maintenance centers – and who, due to a flag officer restructure that went into effect this week, now also commands SEA 21.
Galinis told USNI News after his presentations at the conference that separate sand charts were created for each Regional Maintenance Center (RMC), showing the workload expected for several years to come – up to 2023 in the most recent iteration. The charts show expected work, color-coded by ship class, and make clear where the peaks and valleys are. Galinis can then take that data to a Surface Ship Master Plan negotiation with the type commander and fleet commanders and discuss options that will help stabilize the shipyard workforce without disrupting operational needs.
By 2016, then-Fleet Forces Commander Adm. Phil Davidson was preaching on the inherent flexibility of OFRP to allow overruns in the yards.
Jan. 19, 2016 USNI News Article: U.S. Fleet Forces: New Deployment Plan Designed to Create Sustainable Naval Force
As stakeholders continue to adjust the Master OFRP Production Plan, no single community in the Navy will be able to focus on optimizing their own processes, but rather they will all have to work together to optimize force generation at a macro level, Davidson said.
For example, the ideal situation for the maintenance community would be to have a steady flow of ships come through public and private yards for maintenance and modernization. However, under OFRP all the ships of a CSG must be through maintenance and basic training and ready to start integrated training by an exact date. These opposing needs are being worked out in the OFRP Cross-Functional Team and have already led to some gives and takes: the ships may need to split up and go to different yards to avoid overloading a single shipyard. A ship that requires a longer maintenance period may need to cut into basic training and compress that schedule, while still being ready to start integrated training on the I-date.
Davidson said this shows the flexibility of OFRP, and it also highlights the importance of cross-community collaboration: if the maintainers know in advance that a ship needs major repair work during its availability or will be stuck in dock longer to accommodate a system modernization effort, they can tell the training community well in advance and work together to find a mutually acceptable solution.
Ok, I know that was a lot of reading but there is a point to this. Let's fast forward to today. Where are we now, and what is the Navy saying? If we started in 2013 with a $2 billion backlog, we rolled out OFRP in 2014, by 2016 we'd had it all mapped out and were giving the shipyards predictability, what's going on here in 2019?
Well, let's go to a Breaking Defense article from just last month:
Navy Wants Faster Ship Repairs; 70% Of Destroyer Fleet Late
Excerpt: If the Navy ever hopes to reach its goal of a 355-ship fleet, it won’t be by simply building new hulls and launching them. Instead, the admirals have long recognized they’ll have to extend the lives of dozens of ships already long in the tooth — and do so at a time when shipyard space is already stretched and less than half of its ships are able to complete scheduled maintenance on time.
“We’ve really got to get better than what we’re doing today,” Vice Adm. Tom Moore, head of Naval Sea Systems Command, told the West 2019 conference last week. “We’re digging out of a little bit of a maintenance backlog.” Moore and other commanders at the annual event insisted that they were getting better at getting ships in and out of maintenance availabilities, but currently only about 30 percent of destroyers are able to leave the docks on time.
Later, Moore says that the private yards need to build capacity if they are going to be able to dig out of the hole. Sure enough, predictability is still the watch word, but we've thrown in a new buzzy term: Dynamic Force Employment, which is all about being UNpredictable. Let Breaking Defense explain:
Excerpt: Shipyards and companies in the private sector hire workers for specific projects, but the Navy usually issues a contract just a few months before a ship pulls in for work on a one-off contract, it doesn’t provide the shipyards an incentive to think long-term.
“Industry has got to hire more,” Moore said. “We got to build a system that incentivizes industry to have the right people there, so I think you’re going to see a real sea change in the way we’re working to acquire repair work,” that will give industry a longer view of the maintenance schedule.
I asked Moore about the Navy’s push toward more secrecy as to when ships are coming and going, and the Dynamic Force Employment concept, which will see ships leave port, only to return early from a deployment, and then head out again at an unpredictable time. Won’t that cause havoc in the push for more predictability he had been talking about?
“Operations come first,” he said. “There are ways we can incorporate the thought process of dynamic force employment and still give industry enough predictability.” But he recognized that the model of predictable
unpredictability may be tough to square with the push on the back end for more predictability.
“It’s something that the maintenance community is going to have to wrestle with,” he conceded. “We’re going to have to think our way carefully though this.”
Now we have Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Research, Acquisition and Development James Geurts and his new "Long-Range Plan for the Maintenance and Modernization of Naval Vessels." Now it's unclear what the difference is between NAVSEA's 2014/2015 master plan for ship maintenance and modernization and today's 30-year ship maintenance plan except an extra 22 years of ... projections. It's also unclear if NAVSEA is still using their 2014 master plan. But the branding is a very similar.
In his written testimony March 26, Geurts told lawmakers:
"This plan complements the 30-year Shipbuilding Plan and Shipyard Optimization Plan and establishes the framework to effectively sustain our investments in today’s fleet. It highlights the requisite development initiatives that will facilitate a more adaptable and reliable industrial base, while providing a foundation to support the workload forecasts of our industry partners.
"Tools like this are critical to the success of the Navy and will help us build a culture of continuous evaluation of the industrial base capacity and capability; enabling us to meet the requirements of well-laid plans and adapt to any surge demand if the situation arose."
After the hearing, Guerts talked about a new strategy to get more predictability into the system by grouping maintenance availability contracts together in block buys.
"We did a re-look at our acquisition strategy. We had kind of gone into a 'compete every availability just in time' strategy, and while that was ok on an individual basis it didn't allow us to look at it as a system and didn't afford industry the opportunity to improve productivity and efficiency. So ... we are looking at grouping availabilities together either geographically or by type of work, which would then incentivize investment and productivity improvements. Our on-time rate is improving out of both the public and the private yards"
Geurts touted the 30-year ship maintenance plan as being critical to getting private shipyards to invest in workers and infrastructure to meet the Navy's needs.
"When we've looked at it, industry responds to the demand signal that we put out there," Geurts said. "We were not clear in showing that composite demand signal, so a key element of that 30-year ship maintenance plan was so we could show the entire demand signal. And it has been my experience that when we clearly articulate the demand, industry makes really good decisions on how to invest to help us deliver on that."
Finally, Geurts said that the Navy needed to move away from awarding work packages 90 days prior to the start of work. Geurts called for doubling it to 180 days. It should be noted that this was a key recommendation from a Rand study in 2016, three years ago:
Excerpt: The Navy needs to award the Surface Force work packages much earlier and not wait until A-90 (or 90 days prior to the start of the maintenance availability) to award the work package. Both the private shipyards and Navy need time to plan the work.
So, I started this by saying I don't have opinions, I just have questions. Here they are, at least some of them:
Q: Why hasn't OFRP and the promised stability produced the improved maintenance availability performance that it aimed for since it appears the surface fleet is working through the same backlog it had six years ago?
Q: Is the Navy still seeing the six percent "fester factor" and what is the total maintenance backlog today?
Q: What happened to NAVSEA's 2014/15 master plan and why did it not produce the results it intended?
Q: What is different about the 30-year ship maintenance plan the Navy is now touting?
Q: Is it reasonable to expect that private yards will invest in workers and infrastructure based on the latest maintenance plan for a fleet that has routinely under-performed and under-delivered on previous plans? And, by the way, the Navy is still putting depot maintenance items on its "unfunded priorities" list, so what message is that sending to industry?
Q: If we are straining our maintenance industrial base beyond its capacity with a fleet of 289 ships, what on earth gives anyone the confidence to say we can grow to 314 and beyond? Let alone 355!
Q: How do you square "Dynamic Force Employment" and the operational drive for "unpredictability" with the need to get your ships in and out of maintenance on time?
Here's to digging into this further.
Thanks for joining me again, and thanks for bearing with me. The Hotwash will return next week!