Magazine article National Defense

Navy 'Fleet Response' Posture Could Strain Shipyards, Crews

Magazine article National Defense

Navy 'Fleet Response' Posture Could Strain Shipyards, Crews

Article excerpt

A combination of a shrinking fleet and escalating commitments around the world has prompted the U.S. Navy to come up with a new model for its ship maintenance and repair operations.

Under a blueprint called "fleet response concept," the Navy will reshuffle ship maintenance schedules and relocate shipyard workers as needed, in an attempt to boost the service's war readiness.

Although the idea is viewed as a common-sense approach to meeting these growing demands, Navy officials and outside experts concede that, so far, nobody really is sure whether the U.S. industrial base can adapt to the new model, at least in the foreseeable future. It also is unclear to what extent the improved combat readiness will come at the expense of the quality of life of Navy personnel.

The fleet response concept will seek to "institutionalize" the kind of buildup that the Navy executed in anticipation of the war with Iraq, a conflict for which the Navy deployed 70 percent of its ships, said Adm. Vernon Clark, chief of naval operations.

Rather than focus on deployment dates, the Navy will need to work "readiness angles," Clark said at a breakfast meeting with reporters. The bottom line, he said, is to be able to "scramble" at least five or six carrier battle groups on short notice, when contingencies arise.

This marks a drastic departure from the structured procedures and schedules typically associated with ship maintenance availabilities.

"We have been a Navy that is fundamentally a rotational force," he said. "We will continue to be a Navy that is a rotational force. But we will also be a Navy that is a rotational and a surge force."

In charge of carrying out the fleet response concept is Adm. Robert J. Natter, commander of U.S. Fleet Forces Command.

The Naval Sea Systems Command will see that U.S. shipyards adapt to the fleet response concept, said Rear Adm. William Klemm, NAVSEA's deputy for logistics, maintenance and industrial operations.

"We have to change the business in the industrial concept," he told reporters. "No longer are we going to be sitting here two years in advance, planning how to do the availability. I may very well be told that a ship coming back in a month needs to be reconstituted for a following deployment."

The problem with the industrial base is that it never was designed for the flexible approach to ship maintenance the Navy is now adopting, Klemm said.

"In the Cold War era, we assigned ships to shipyards, [in] rotational assignments," he said. "We would plan up to two years in advance for that availability, buy material and do the engineering work."

In the rotational force, one third of the Navy is on deployment, one third in stand-down maintenance and one third in "inter-deployment training cycle."

If a conflict erupts, some of the ships in training have to prepare to relieve those ships on deployment. A portion of the ships on deployment have to stay longer than planned.

Under this model, about one-third to one-half of the Navy could be ready to respond. With the fleet response concept, the goal is to keep two-thirds of the fleet in war-ready status, said Klemm.

Having more ships in such high readiness status means, for example, that shipyards will need to do a better job keeping the ships steadily in good condition rather than patch them up and meet the deployment deadline, Klemm said.

During the Vietnam War, "we ran our ships hard, and we paid the price. It took years to bring them back. That situation today would bring us to our knees," said Klemm. "We have to be able to sustain ships in a much more agile fashion, without having to put them into maintenance."

That requires "investing in the infrastructure of the ships, so they can sustain themselves .... We are not just going to be sending a horde of shipyard workers to put band-aids and patches, so the ship can get underway. …

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