Magazine article National Defense

Navy Surface Fleet Faces Rough Waters Trying to Maintain Ships

Magazine article National Defense

Navy Surface Fleet Faces Rough Waters Trying to Maintain Ships

Article excerpt

The Navy in the past decade has found itself in a downward spiral of maintenance problems. It has subjected the fleet to high operational tempos that increased wear and tear and has cut back routine practices that help identify onboard repair needs, such as ship inspections and assessments.

The service is trying to revamp its maintenance policies to include more inspections, new technology and a shift in culture. Progress is occurring, but changes will take a while to stick, and the service will likely have to deal with budget cuts that make it more difficult to maintain its ships, Navy and industry officials said.

"I think the Navy is doing all the right things to correct what was undone and to improve the processes, but they've had a 10-year problem, and what they institutionalized takes time to work through the system," said retired Rear Adm. Joe Carnevale, senior defense advisor to the Shipbuilders Council of America. "There's a big time lag between implementing all of these initiatives and getting ship availabilities improved."

A 2010 fleet review panel found that many actions led to degraded surface force readiness. The Navy instituted a shorter period of time to complete repairs, reduced the number of maintenance assessments and cut back training. It also underestimated the amount of funding needed to properly maintain ships, the panel found.

Since then, the Navy has made inroads, establishing the Surface Maintenance Engineering Planning Program (SURFMEPP) to help manage lifecycle maintenance for ships and the Navy Regional Maintenance Center Command (RMC) to oversee its execution.

In 2012, the service published a new surface force readiness manual requiring that a material inspection must take place after the basic phase, which is when a ship is certified that it can execute its mission. Ships will have to go through either the thorough INSURV inspection, or one conducted by a type commander, who controls the vessel before it is deployed.

But implementation of the manual could be hampered by continued high operational tempos and a lack of staff, said a 2012 study by the Government Accountability Office. This could lead to deferments in lifecycle maintenance and increased costs, it said.

High operational tempo has long been a problem. It limits the amount of time the Navy has to conduct assessments, wears down the ship, and puts added strain on the crew, who may not have enough time to do maintenance, Carnevale said.

The previous decade was also marked by deferrals in maintenance that made it more difficult for industry to repair ships within the scheduled availability, Carnevale said. Defense contractors were often left with ships that had enormous amounts of "growth work," or unplanned maintenance.

For example, workers planning to repair a diesel engine would sometimes find corrosion in its foundation. In order to replace the steel in the foundation, the crew must remove the gas in the fuel tank below deck to prevent explosions. They then would find corrosion in the fuel tank, he said.

The Navy also eliminated zone inspections--a periodic check up of each compartment by the crew that can help find corrosion or damage to steel. Regular inspections of tanks and gas frames were also limited or done away with, Carnevale said.

"They used to have a team of senior enlisted officers come onboard the ship to do exams that were associated with various systems ... and these visits, they were done away with, figuring this was just a burden on the fleet," Carnevale said. "The value in terms of training the sailors and the crew was underestimated, and the value of preparing the ships for an availability ... was underestimated."

The Navy hopes new readiness policies will restore a more organized way of doing maintenance.

There needs to be continued focus on aligning the fleet and type commands on advanced planning, contracting and execution of maintenance needs, said Rear Adm. …

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