Can the Navy Maintain a 355-Ship Fleet?

The congressionally mandated larger fleet could overwhelm the Navy’s old public shipyards.

Naval Station Norfolk, Virginia
AP Photo/Steve Helber
Dec. 20, 2018, 8 p.m.

Over the next several decades, the Navy plans to dramatically scale up its shipbuilding in order to meet a congressionally mandated 355-ship fleet target. But with the shipyards charged with maintaining that fleet in disarray—and high-skilled workers walking away—some analysts warn against chasing the figure.

“I do think the focus on ship count and fleet size takes away from the maintenance discussion,” said Bryan Clark, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. “Having 355 ships but unable to maintain more than 50 or so at sea would not be a good balance of resources. The Navy may have to make some hard choices about how big the fleet can be and still be affordable to own.”

The 355-ship goal is part of the military’s realignment for great-power competition, largely with Russia and China. The Navy first recommended the figure in December 2016, and lawmakers codified it into law in the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act, which requires the Navy to meet the figure “as soon as practicable.”

The Navy’s active fleet currently numbers around 280. That number fluctuates as older ships are retired and new ones are built. Although the Navy has kick-started shipbuilding efforts, is extending deployments for active ships, and plans to dump billions into private contracts in the next several decades, long-overdue repairs at its public shipyards have been put on the back burner.

Navy Secretary Richard Spencer told the Senate Armed Services Committee last week that maintenance and repair funds would be deferred if the Pentagon’s budget were cut.

Over the past several decades, many of the public sites were closed, sold, or converted for other purposes. Four sites remain operational: Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Maine, Norfolk Naval Shipyard in Virginia, Puget Sound Naval Shipyard and Intermediate Maintenance Facility in Washington state, and Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard in Hawaii.

The Navy’s top priority has always been “to keep ships deployed,” said Seth Cropsey, director of the Center for American Seapower at the Hudson Institute. “Money was pulled from elsewhere to do that, and the usual place is repair facilities, maintenance facilities, support structure, infrastructure—all the things we need to do to keep ships operating.”

The public shipyards are filled with aging and corroded equipment and outdated dry-dock systems not designed for the modern nuclear fleet. In September 2017, the Government Accountability Office reported that the disintegration of these shipyards led to 1,300 lost operational days for aircraft carriers and 12,500 lost operational days for submarines.

Delays at these sites have increased dramatically in recent years. Only 30 percent of the Navy’s scheduled maintenance projects have been completed on time since 2012, the GAO reported last week.

In one report from November, the GAO found that the Navy has spent $1.5 billion in the past decade to support attack submarines that provide “no operational capability—those sitting idle while waiting to enter the shipyards, and those delayed in completing their maintenance at the shipyards.”

“The pickle that we’re in is driven by classic problems of supply and demand,” said Bryan McGrath, also of the Center for American Seapower. “We simply don’t have that many places where the technically difficult work that needs to be done in these yards can be done.”

The Navy plans to invest $21 billion into “dry dock recapitalization, facility layout and optimization, and capital equipment modernization,” Assistant Navy Secretary James Geurts told the House Armed Services Committee in March.

Spencer this month told an audience at the U.S. Naval Institute that it costs $400 million to modernize each dry dock for modern vessels.

Another, potentially more intractable issue, is the lack of high-skilled laborers capable of completing the repairs. Many of the skilled laborers—those with electrical, pipe-fitting, welding, and other metalworking skills—began leaving the shipyards at the end of the Cold War, and hiring slowed following sequestration in 2013.

“This is a unique, highly skilled workforce in our nuclear yards,” Adm. William Moran told the Senate Armed Services Committee last week. “And if they don’t feel like they’re supported—we’re not giving them adequate resources to do their job and have the manning levels where they need to be—they walk.”

The Navy has announced plans to shift some maintenance to private shipyards. The USS Boise, a nuclear submarine that has been inactive for years, recently entered Huntington Ingalls’ Newport News Naval Shipyard.

Experts expect the plan will alleviate the strain on public sites, but warned that it could prove challenging for companies accustomed to building subs in serial fashion.

“Repairs and overhauls are unique and ship-specific,” noted Clark. “Each overhaul must be planned separately, requires different materials and parts than new construction, and workers need different skills than they do for the recurring tasks they do to build ships.”

Private contractors may also be less interested in the projects, which typically promise smaller returns when compared to construction contracts.

“This deal with the private docks—yeah, that’s some money, but it’s not like building a $13 billion aircraft carrier,” said Lawrence Korb, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. Korb suggested that the Navy secretary should stress to Congress that the maintenance and repair issues are affecting readiness—an issue that may get voters' attention.

“Politically, readiness resonates more than anything else. It’s kind of a technical term, but if you tell the American people, 'We’re not ready to fight,' they get concerned,” he said.

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