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Navigation Brief

This is an e-newsletter first published August 13, 2020

UPPER PITTSGROVE, NJ – Good Evening from the New Jersey bureau.

Ladies and gentlemen, there is little doubt that the Navy is too small to carry out its current mission load. Or, perhaps more accurately: The Navy, with its current number and mix of ships, cannot generate adequate force to maintain its current mission load. They’ve been scraping too little peanut butter over too much bread for years now, and we only tend to talk about it when the wheels are falling off.

Now, here at The Drift, I’ve taken the position that I really don’t care how the Nation addresses the issue: Either grow the fleet to the size it needs to be to meet what its being asked to do, or start figuring out how to employ the fleet in a sustainable way. In other words, figure out what you’re are not going to do, or figure out how to do what you are doing in a cheaper or more efficient way.

One solution that blew up just recently was to start pawning off BMD patrols, the kind that helped break the back of 7th Fleet in 2017, on to shore-based radar systems such as AEGIS Ashore. That may have helped take some of the load off the BMD cruisers and destroyers in Yokosuka. But that fell apart because of Japanese internal politics, so its back to the drawing board on that one.

But its not all the fault of The Man telling the Navy to do things it’s too overstretched to do. Some of it the Navy has done to itself in the form of maintenance own goals.

We discussed maintenance here before in Season 1. You can read that here:

Navy maintenance is a dumpster fire: The Drift, Vol. XXIV

In the piece above, I merely mapped out years of talking points about Navy maintenance to demonstrate they never seem to solve the problem they've identified. Maiya Clark at Heritage Foundation did a somewhat more professional job in her recent report:

U.S. Navy Shipyards Desperately Need Revitalization and a Rethink

I recognize this is two weeks in a row of Heritage Foundation write-ups. That’s merely a coincidence. But I got a special treat for your next week so bear with me here.

Let’s Drift!


Foot Shooting

There’s nothing in the Navy enterprise I find more frustrating than maintenance. Schedule unpredictability does make the Navy’s job more difficult, but my-oh-my does the Navy ever shoot itself in the foot and often. Nuclear maintenance is one of those places: Fixing the attack boats, boomers and aircraft carriers – and, of course, the new class of nuclear battleship we’ll be building when they make me Secretary of the Navy.

In Clark’s report, she brings out the fact that we learned in the Navy’s Shipyard Optimization report: If left unaddressed, the Navy will lack the dry dock space for 68 maintenance availabilities between 2019 and 2040. And folks, the nuke Navy isn’t like the regular surface Navy: You can’t just skip an avail and say we’ll make it up next time. No, if you miss your nuke maintenance you’re gonna lose your dive certification. Look at the sad, sad tale of the Los Angeles-class attack submarine Boise, that essentially sat around for five years waiting for a dry dock.

Clark brings out some fun facts about the Navy’s 18 dry docks that make you want to bang your head on something:

Excerpt: Dry docks are not a piece of equipment, but a piece of infrastructure. In this sense, they are not interchangeable. Each is constructed differently: They vary in depth, length, and width; filling and draining mechanisms; and age—one dry dock at Norfolk was the first constructed in the Western Hemisphere and has been in operation since 1833.

As a result, not every dry dock can accommodate every ship. Only two dry docks—Dry Dock 8 at Norfolk and Dry Dock 6 at Puget Sound—can service Nimitz-class carriers. Most dry docks are not large enough to hold an aircraft carrier.

The Navy’s attack submarines have also evolved, but the dry docks that service them have not: 17 dry docks can service older Los Angeles-class submarines, but only 12 can accommodate their replacement, the Virginia-class submarine, and only seven can service the newest Block V Virginia-class submarine, which is 83 feet longer than earlier variants and displaces an additional 2,400 tons.12

Second, some dry docks being used “get the job done” but are not optimally suited to the tasks they perform. For example, four of the Navy’s dry docks must be “superflooded”—filled with water above their designed maximum water levels—to float the submarines they service in and out of the dock.13

This damages electrical equipment and other features of the dry dock that are not meant to be submerged. No dry dock at any Navy shipyard can accommodate the new Ford-class aircraft carrier, even though the first Ford-class carrier was commissioned in 2017.

While the current aircraft carrier dry docks are large enough to hold the Ford-class carrier, the docks lack the utility services needed to service the carrier.


Just … Ehhhhhh.

Folks, if the Navy can’t even deploy its ships because of a broken maintenance system, why would anyone fund more ships to further jam up the system? Make no mistake about this, the public shipyards and the related infrastructure are the responsibility of the United States Navy. This one is on them.

Clark’s report goes on to detail the well-documented personnel issues at the shipyards, the loss of skilled workers as the fleet has downsized over the years, and the deplorable state of the facilities at the yards. It also details how the Navy must essentially demolish and reconstruct the shipyards to reconfigure the spaces for optimal workflow.

Now the Navy’s plan for this is a 20-year, $21 billion just-in-time plan where repairs and reconfigurations happen exactly when they are needed to ensure the Navy can keep making the donuts. But cracks in the foundation of that seemingly solid edifice are already appearing, Clark writes.

Excerpt: Issues with the SIOP’s budget estimates are already appearing. In the [Shipyard Infrastructure Optimization Plan], FY 2021 spending on a project at Portsmouth Naval Shipyard was estimated at $381 million. However, the President’s budget request for FY 2021 estimates the costs for the project at $715 million—the amount which is being requested to be authorized.38

 It demonstrates potential unreliability in the SIOP’s cost estimates: The $715 million requested is far more than the $381 million estimate. The reliability of SIOP cost estimates is further discussed in a later section.

I’m not a betting man, but if I were, I’d put money on the $21 billion cost estimate not being worth the 1s and 0s that were expended to jam it on to a PowerPoint. And make no mistake, the Navy acknowledges that estimate is only PowerPoint deep. Later in the report Clark points out that the service has acknowledged that forming a cost estimate in 2020 for a project that is slated to be funded in 2033 is impossible.

So, here we go with bullshit numbers again.

Oh, and by the way, in case you were still wondering if this SIOP was a house of cards, here’s happy thought from Clark:

Excerpt: The SIOP is based on the current nuclear fleet, but it does not quite even meet the requirements of the current fleet. (It would make up for 67 of 68 missed maintenance availabilities, the missed availability being a submarine deactivation.) While this would be a massive improvement for the shipyards, it leaves little margin for unscheduled emergent work and does not allow for a potentially larger or different nuclear fleet in the future.

So, here’s the Navy’s plan to fix the public shipyards: A 20-year, just in time reconstruction of all four yards, but is has no idea how much it will cost, is already heading over budget less than a year in, and even if everything goes right they still have no room for growing the nuclear fleet or responding to emergencies without killing an availability for another ship.

Solid plan. Can’t see how it could go wrong.

You can read the rest of Maiya’s report by clicking the link at the top. Let’s go to the Hotwash.

The Hotwash

Straight to the links tonight.

More Reading

DO IT NOW! Surface warfare officers: Order your leather jackets now!

Fair Winds and Following Seas: Remains of service members killed in Corps AAV accident transferred to Dover

Geurts: Navy Modernization At Risk Without COVID-19 Acquisition Relief Funds

3rd Fleet to Lead USS Bonhomme Richard Fire Command Investigation

Shipyards Not At Risk, Despite DoD Warning It Needs $$ To Save Them

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David B. Larter was the naval warfare reporter for Defense News.

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