Report: Parts-swapping is common across Navy

Crews swap parts to get ready to sail or take aboard inspectors, and the practice is common across the fleet -- especially aboard submarines.

Crews aboard one in every two ships across the Navy “cannibalized” spare parts from their neighbors in order to get operationally ready or pass an inspection, according to a report Tuesday in Jane’s Defence Weekly. According to data obtained by naval correspondent Sam LaGrone in the wake of last week’s House hearing about Navy readiness, the Navy’s submarine force — legendary for its preoccupation with safety and detail — is the biggest culprit in the fleet.

Top Navy officials admitted to the House Armed Services readiness subcommittee last week that the fleet’s cannibalization rates were high, but at the time, neither they nor lawmakers gave details. Now, here they are.

Wrote LaGrone:

The US Navy (USN) is relying heavily on a maintenance option the service considers “a drastic measure to only be utilised as a last resort” to allow its ships to pass their basic inspections and maintain the operational effectiveness of its fleet, according to previously unreleased data provided to the US Congress and obtained by Jane’s .

In four consecutive quarters in 2010 the USN reported a rate of so-called “cannibalisation” of components between ships of on average twice the current allowable maximum allowed limit (MAL) of about one instance per four ships (.28), according to the data.

He continues:

Across the fleet in 2010, the USN saw an average rate of cannibalisation of .48, or about one instance per two ships across the entire year. Across the nine ship classes identified in the data, five ship classes exceeded the MAL.

The US submarine force had by far the highest instances of cannibalisation, according to the data. In the first three months of 2010 US nuclear attack boats (SSNs) and Ohio-class nuclear ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) saw a collective cannibalisation rate of 1.4, or about one-and-a-half instances per ship …

Submarine tenders, auxiliary ships and amphibious warships had the least instances of cannibalisation in the data, well below the current MAL. Many of the cases were justified by the navy in reaction to an October 2009 order from Commander, Naval Surface Forces (NAVSURFOR), to maximise readiness rates of deployed or soon-to-be deployed surface ships, according to an explanation that accompanied the data; NAVSURFOR sought to minimise equipment casualty reports on so-called “deployers”. Additionally, ships undergoing USN Board of Inspection and Survey (INSURV) inspections raided nearby ships’ equipment for supplies in order to pass, the USN said in its explanation to Congress.

“Often times cannibalisations occur with potential assets available. However, the timeframe prior to training events or operational requirements do not support the needed order and shipping time (current system goal is 10 days),” read an 18 July statement provided to Jane’s from the US Office of the Chief of Naval Operations (OPNAV). The statement indicated that fleet cannibalisation numbers have decreased to .20 for the first quarter of 2011. The navy also defended its supply lines and systems.

“An evaluation of all cannibalisations for Fiscal Year 10 did not identify any particular weapon systems as the primary cause and determined that the supply system is performing at or above goals,” read the USN statement.

Wait, what? If ships across the fleet, including nuclear-powered submarines, can’t get spares in time through the normal supply chain and need to borrow them from one another under an informal swap-process the Navy itself calls a “drastic measure” and “last resort,” how could the supply chain be “performing at or above goals?”

Why, in fact, does the Navy have official data about a practice it condemns? Here’s one theory: In the rough and ready, pirate’s-life-for-me world of the surface force, crews may have been swapping parts and keeping pretty loose about their documentation, under the Navy Standard You-Scratch-My-Back-I’ll-Scratch-Yours Doctrine. But when you’ve got a bunch of nukes trying to get their submarines ready for an inspection or a deployment, their pure nuke hearts just can’t accept parts from another boat on the waterfront without pristine, extensive, signed-in-triplicate documentation. So Big Navy learned about it one way or another and someone said, well, no way we can stop this, so we might as well monitor it.

Since it’s a last resort and it’s discouraged, that probably means it goes on even more than these numbers indicate.

One team, one fight, right? These guys are all on the same side, you could argue, and it’s a testament to sailors’ dedication that they’re willing to beg, borrow and steal to stay ready and get the job done. Maybe there’s no way to build a bureaucracy such that it can get components on time to everywhere they’re needed, forcing some crews to do without in order to help their colleagues. From the way the Navy’s statement to LaGrone sounds, it has given up trying.