The U.S. Navy’s Board of Inspection and Survey, commonly called INSURV, was established in 1868 to provide an independent evaluation of the condition of ships and their ability to perform their missions. It has been in operation continuously since then. (It also performs acceptance trials for new ships.) Examinations are rigorous and based upon expected performance in roughly 20 categories. For many years, the results were public; but in 2008, several ships failed the examinations, and the reports became restricted. Two years ago, Congress directed that reports be unclassified. This report reflects the 2020 evaluation based on 40 ship evaluations. Ships are scheduled to be evaluated every three years.

Ratings are based on a figure of merit, which has been consistent over several years. Thus, it provides a reasonable measure of performance consistency. As shown in the following extract from the recent report, there has been a six-year declining trend. Attempts to reverse the trend have been futile, so the future challenge is to identify reasons, establish corrective plans and, most importantly, implement them.

This summary data does not indicate the source of low scores, but other tables in the report are clear and point to the need for more detailed analysis based on the data collected. This analysis should point to necessary, corrective actions.

For example, surface ship anti-submarine warfare, weapons systems and Aegis weapons systems all show declines. Yet, these are the systems needed for effective combat. All these should be corrected. Of the 21 categories evaluated, 11 are less than acceptable. Furthermore, submarine combat systems have started to show a decline for the first time.

All these indicators suggest that the current support system does not provide the fleet effectiveness that was purchased through the development and acquisition process.

New emphasis is needed from top-level leadership to reverse the trends shown and prepare for support of an aging fleet. The new administration must seek to reverse the failures of the past six years.

The INSURV inspections are a ready source of data. However, in view of the well-known history of experience and primary focus by the INSURV team, the report itself can and should be improved by adding more narrative on types, classes and ages of the individual ships inspected in order to identify major issues of fleetwide importance:

  1. Common problems of both class and age, focused on specific ship systems’ problems.
  2. Evidence of performance conditions related to home porting location and three-year history of underway operations.
  3. Maturity and operational readiness issues noting important and specific “new” ship systems, components, sensors and weaponry.
  4. Embedded knowledge, training and relative competency of key ships’ force in organizational readiness of critical systems, sensors and weaponry.
  5. Particularly for aging ships over 10 years with heavy seagoing histories, special rigor in inspection, and commentary on basic hull and main machinery conditions; and compliance with fleet and/or class requirements.

Based on the solutions identified, the responsible assistant secretary can focus and direct corrective actions.

It is also an important task in releasing the ship capabilities developed and purchased using tens of billions of dollars, and constituting America’s major naval power.

While it may sound trivial, the Navy is built around its ships. The Biden administration faces several problems in maintaining and building the future Navy as it faces growing Chinese and Russian threats. These are:

  • Materiel condition of the current fleet is declining, as shown in this sample of 40 ship inspections.
  • A plan for building an affordable Navy and implementing the law setting 355 ships as national policy have not been developed.
  • Some believe the future 500-ship Navy can consist of many unmanned ships. Mission performance has not been proven.
  • Major spare parts shortages limit aircraft and weapons system availability.

All of these need to be solved concurrently in a period of fiscal challenge brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Everett Pyatt is a former assistant secretary of the U.S. Navy for shipbuilding and logistics.