With demand unlikely to ebb, increasing the operational availability of our current supply of forces — especially those ships already deployed — becomes paramount. Vast ocean distances that take weeks to traverse make the ability to regenerate forces quickly a critical enabler for mission success.
Such a task is difficult in peacetime because a shrunken defense-industrial base has left few domestic shipyards capable of performing maintenance. The Government Accountability Office asserts this has induced backlogs and cost overruns as well as contributed to some ship decommissioning recommendations that combine to strain capacity. Cumulative “maintenance delay days” dropped in fiscal 2023, but the job gets harder in wartime.
While the Shipyard Infrastructure Optimization Plan is a start, improvements are estimated to cost $21 billion and take 20 years to implement. This has led some prominent voices to support “shifting funds from shipbuilding to modernizing U.S. shipyards” to keep “the existing fleet as lethal as it can be.”
Meanwhile, reconstituting the Navy’s once robust, in-theater expeditionary ship repair capabilities can help overcome domestic constraints and answer the National Security Strategy’s charge to build “a combat-credible military.” Some such efforts are underway, but further strategic and policy choices can deliver the operational benefits sooner.
First, reexamine current and future platform requirements to incorporate organic ship repair capabilities wherever feasible. For example, repurposing in-service expeditionary sea base ships could transform them into floating repair facilities. These vessels, like those in the Maritime Administration’s Ready Reserve Force, contain expansive spaces suitable for large workshops, machinery overhaul, additive manufacturing technology, parts storerooms and command posts. Their mobility also reduces risks associated with permanent infrastructure.
Looking to the horizon, resourcing experts should explore whether the submarine tender replacement could also perform intermediate-level surface ship maintenance. Though hard to envision a return to 1945 when the fleet included nearly 200 repair-type ships, FY24 initial procurement funding still affords planners time to evaluate the next-generation tender’s utility and quantity before its estimated delivery toward the end of the decade.
Second, reconsider engineering development and systems fielding strategies to emphasize reliability and flexibility. The GAO observed: “Modern warships have intricate electrical, radar, and computer systems that did not exist on World War II-era warships, making damage assessment and repair of modern ships significantly more complex.” Therefore, a back-to-the-future approach to de-digitize and re-analog certain components could enhance redundancy, streamline assessments and support faster work.
Such simplification could also spur unpalatable, but important discussions among engineers and operators to return functional, but imperfect mission-capable combatants to service — just as the Navy did with the aircraft carrier Yorktown in 1942 so it could fight at Midway.
Additionally, Navy warfare centers and program offices should use modeling, simulation, threat-centric planning and artificial intelligence to predict ship vulnerabilities. By understanding how and to what extent adversarial armaments could inflict damage, engineers and logisticians could pre-stage the forecast tools, parts, materials and personnel to undertake mission-critical repairs.
Third, reorganize the maintenance community to form deployable repair detachments. In this construct, a program manager-experienced officer could lead a team of uniformed and civilian specialists and stage aboard forward-operating auxiliaries to conduct on-scene repair assessments, oversee towing or salvage, and orchestrate preventive and corrective work.
In 2022, the Navy’s largest intermediate-level regional maintenance center in San Diego, California, established an expeditionary maintenance department to support scheduled littoral combat ship voyage repairs. This model could be mirrored in other regions and expanded to incorporate in-theater crisis response.
Fourth, appeal to Congress to amend public law, which currently prohibits U.S.-homeported ships from undergoing maintenance in foreign shipyards except for mid-deployment voyage repairs or to correct battle damage. While the U.S. Navy operates public ship repair facilities in Japan and contracts with private yards in Bahrain and Spain to fix forward-deployed vessels stationed there, Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro acknowledged: “The intense repair-and-revive demands of a high-end conflict in Asia will require significant shipyard capacity in the Pacific.” This is why his maritime statecraft approach includes increasing throughput by using previously untapped shipyards — public, private, at home and abroad — to expand in-theater maintenance options with likeminded and capable partners. This is particularly important in ports with dry-docks, which are vital to repairing external hull, propulsion, steering, and underwater damage.
Moreover, thanks to foreign military sales, many Indo-Pacific navies operate American engineering equipment, combat systems and weaponry — commonality that creates economies of scale in the transfer of parts, personnel and expertise. These reasons explain why U.S. Ambassador to Japan Rahm Emanuel has championed a collective approach, noting: “American warships shouldn’t be sailing home for repairs when a trusted ally can do the job.”
It would be sensible to test these options in peacetime before the U.S. urgently needs them.
Lastly, ask Congress to authorize the creation of a new four-star Navy Materiel Command — akin to the Army and Air Force Materiel commands. Many complex shipboard programs — for example, IT infrastructure or aviation facilities — have multiple two- and three-star program, systems, type and installation command stakeholders with overlapping or ambiguous jurisdiction. Though seemingly counterintuitive, an added layer of authorities would better integrate repair efforts by synchronizing approaches, assigning accountability and streamlining decision-making.
As Secretary Del Toro affirmed, the ability “to do forward-based repair and maintenance is critical” to the Navy’s mission. In a protracted conflict far from home, every contributor will count. But while preserving a domestic ship repair industry is a national security interest, limited shipyard options justify a new approach.
Revitalizing in-theater expeditionary ship repair capabilities can harness the agility, mobility and scalability that are hallmark advantages of naval power so that if called upon, our ships can sail to the battle line — and stay there.
Cmdr. Douglas Robb commanded the U.S. Navy’s guided-missile destroyer Spruance, and is currently a U.S. Navy fellow at the University of Oxford. The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the views of the U.S. Defense Department, the Department of the Navy nor the U.S. government.