Magazine article National Defense

Unfit for Duty? Navy Rethinks How It Maintains Surface Combatants

Magazine article National Defense

Unfit for Duty? Navy Rethinks How It Maintains Surface Combatants

Article excerpt

Facing readiness problems in surface combatants, the Navy is redoubling its efforts to improve fleet maintenance. The goal is to ensure that ships are fit for deployments and are able to reach and even surpass their expected service lives.

Ships need to stay in service longer than originally intended because it is becoming harder for the Navy to afford to build new ones. Soaring costs and tightening budgets are hindering the service's attempts to expand its fleet to at least 313 ships by 2020. But with growing operational demands on the fleet, Navy officials and industry experts say keeping the current fleet in tiptop shape could prove to be a challenge unless it revamps the way ships are maintained through their entire life cycle.

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The Navy has realized that if it wants to reach the 30- or 35-year service life of these ships, it needs to start gaining a better technical understanding of its hulls and onboard systems in order to plan out repairs in a more efficient manner, says Joe Carnevale, senior defense advisor at the Shipbuilders Council of America. This "life cycle engineering" effort will improve the maintenance of the existing 285 ships in its fleet, but only if Navy officials resource it properly. "They've got to make the investment. They really don't have a choice, or otherwise 15, 20 years down the road, they're going to find that they can't keep the ships going and the fleet size will drop even further," says Carnevale.

Unlike the precisely planned maintenance process in the carrier and submarine forces, ship repair in the surface fleet has followed less stringent procedures that reflect a prolonged lack of attention to detail and engineering, experts say.

"Surface ship maintenance has kind of been the red-headed stepchild of the overall Navy maintenance," says Rear Adm. James McManamon, deputy commander for surface warfare at Naval Sea Systems Command. "In the surface Navy, we have not done a real good job of collecting all of the maintenance requirements and also making sure it was engineered correctly."

Officials have acknowledged the service's perennial deficiency in managing the life cycle of the surface combatants. The Navy also has lacked an organization that could review requirements and ensure that those were being included in the ship repair schedules, McManamon says.

For ship repair, the Navy grants multi-ship, multi-option contracts that are executed in each homeport for each of the ships in a class. "That takes full advantage of private industry. But that also provides a bit of a challenge because you now have a multitude of different companies in different homeports. That makes it hard to centrally manage the status of surface ships in total," says McManamon.

To fix the problem, the Navy in May established the surface ship life cycle management activity in Norfolk, Va., to track and organize availabilities--the time a ship spends at piers and dry docks for repairs. With approximately 45 full-time engineers and Navy civilians, the team will focus on standardizing maintenance plans and ship upgrades.

"The goal is to ensure that I always give the [Chief of Naval Operations] the ability to reach the expected service life of every surface ship," says McManamon.

Industry has felt that better planning and identification of work for surface ship repair is long overdue, says Camevale. "If you don't know precisely what work needs to get done, what are the chances of getting the work done that you need done, successfully? The more effort you put into planning, the better your chances are of getting a successful availability."

And more successful repairs mean that ships will be able to stay in service for longer periods because their parts will be better maintained.

Ship components such as the ventilation, the piping, the hull and the power plants can make or break service life, says Carnevale, a retired rear admiral and naval engineer. …

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