Surface Navy: ‘We’re not good to go’

Top service officials acknowledge that it'll take much more time and effort to reverse the problems plaguing the Navy's surface fleet.

A pair of top Navy officials admitted Tuesday that its endemic readiness problems are basically unresolved — and may keep getting worse — before the service’s plans to fix its surface fleet finally take effect. Vice Adm. Bill Burke, the Navy’s top maintenance officer; and Vice Adm. Kevin McCoy, head of Naval Sea Systems Command, told a House Armed Services Committee panel that it took so many years, and so many interconnected decisions, to put the surface Navy in its current state that it would take a lot of time and effort to get it right again.

“We have a good plan,” McCoy told committee chairman Rep. Randy Forbes, a Virginia Republican, “We’re not good to go right now.” In fact, he said some negative indicators “may turn a little harsher.”

Over the past five years and beyond, Navy inspections have found that a growing number of the Navy’s surface warships aren’t ready to fight: The ships are in bad physical shape, carry broken equipment, insufficient spare parts, and can’t even rely upon their advanced weapons and sensors. But despite years of embarrassing reports in the press and harangues from Congress and top DoD officials, the fleet has been slow to recover, given the wide range of causes for its woes. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, when the “running government like a business” craze swept the Pentagon, top leaders rewarded commanders who could get the job done for less money, which then sparked a flurry of inter-related decisions that had the net effect of reducing the readiness of the surface Navy:

The Navy fielded smaller crews, making fewer hands available for regular maintenance; it cut human-led, hands-on instruction, preferring to teach sailors their jobs using “computer-based instruction,” which meant they weren’t qualified to do their jobs at sea. And simple budget cuts meant ships didn’t get the regular maintenance or spare parts they needed. On top of all this, Navy commanders blame an increase in operational tempo, which meant more demands on their smaller, poorly maintained fleet, which meant less time and money to do the full-scale repairs ships need to keep them in service for their design lives. Crews realized all these problems at the operational level, but it has taken years to get the top brass to acknowledge the failures of initiatives such as “top 6 roll-down,” “lean manning,” and the “fleet response plan.”

According to Tuesday’s hearing, all those problems are more or less still in effect, although Burke and McCoy told Forbes they acknowledge what’s wrong and they know what they have to do to fix it. The surface Navy is doing the inconvenient, expensive maintenance it has long put off, McCoy said, because it now accepts the need to keep ships around for their full lives — something the Navy traditionally has not done. McCoy gave the example of the cruiser USS Chosin, now in dry-dock in Hawaii: Initially the repair bill for that ship was estimated at $35 million, McCoy said, but when engineers did their deep inspections and discovered the state of its tanks, pipes and other equipment, they realized they would have to spend $70 million to get the ship into the best shape they could. This is why McCoy and Burke warned the Navy could continue to have bad results on its inspections, as long-hidden problems finally come into view.

McCoy and Burke said that about 70 percent of the Navy’s hoped-for fleet of 313 ships is in service today, but the service can only get to that goal if all its destroyers and cruisers, for example, actually serve for their full 40 or 35 years.

But Congress has heard Navy leaders give this explanation many times before, Forbes said. He pointed to statistics that showed an ever-growing number of Navy warships were being found unready each year — from 12 percent in 2009 to 24 percent last year, and 22 percent already this year. What is the Navy’s target for that number? Forbes asked. McCoy and Burke said the service is in the process of formulating one, but it’s a complicated situation. Forbes complained that defense witnesses always come before Congress with a plan for how they’ll get better, but they seldom appear to be able to act on it; as when DoD was unable to even conduct the basic audits of itself that officials promised they would.

McCoy and Burke repeated that the Navy is “stretched” by the number of forces it must provide to combatant commanders, who Burke said want more carriers, aircraft and submarines than the Navy can deploy in answer. Burke, a submariner, said that combatant commanders want between 16 and 18 nuclear attack submarines at any one time, but the Navy only has enough to deploy 10. He and McCoy said the Navy wasn’t forcing commanders to miss missions, but that the rate of operations today was affecting the surface fleet’s ability to do maintenance and could hurt the service lives of its ships. Overall, the admirals warned, today’s operational tempo is “unsustainable.”

But Forbes alluded to a classified report from the combatant commanders that he suggested found the Navy was forcing them to miss missions, although he said he and the witnesses couldn’t talk about it in open session. Forbes also blasted the Navy’s decision to under-fund its depot maintenance for ships and aircraft, a calculated risk by service officials to defer work in order to afford other priorities. Forbes hinted at a high “cannibalization” rate in the surface force, alluding to the practice in which crews’ swap their ships’ equipment when inspectors are due so they aren’t dinged for non-functional gear. Although surface sailors quietly talk about this practice among themselves, it’s very seldom broached publicly, and the Navy brass denies it happens.