Despite the Navy’s changing efforts to decrease its surface and submarine maintenance backlog, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) said the backlog grew in 2018 while a top Navy official admitted three attack submarines (SSNs) are no longer certified to dive after long maintenance delays.

GAO released an updated study of Navy readiness and maintenance concurrently with the testimony of John Pendleton, Director of Defense Capabilities and Management at GAO, before a joint hearing with the Senate Armed Services Subcommittees on Seapower and Readiness and Management Support on Dec. 12.

In November, the GAO released an earlier report on this issues that found the Navy spent a combined $1.5 billion on Virginia-class attack submarines idling for 61 months waiting to enter shipyards for maintenance work (Defense Daily, Nov. 19).

GAO graphic. (Image: Government Accountability Office)
GAO graphic. (Image: Government Accountability Office)

The report noted that despite the service taking corrective steps to improve readiness, since fiscal year 2012 “30 percent of Navy maintenance was completed on time, leading to more than 27,000 days in which ships were delayed and unavailable for training and operations.”

According to the GAO’s figures, FY 2018 had more delayed maintenance days than 2017 for both surface ships and attack submarines. While in 2017 there was about 2,700 delayed maintenance days for surface ships, lower than the FY 2016 number of 3,700 days, the number rose above both to about 4,500 in 2018. SSNs also gained more delayed maintenance days, rising above 1,500 delayed days in FY 2018.

The GAO was also concerned about matching this maintenance backlog and size of work with the Navy’s plans to increase the fleet size to 355 ships, 25 percent above its current force of 287 ships.

“Looking to the future, the Navy has indicated that it wants to grow its fleet to meet demands,” it said. “However, the costs of such growth are not yet known and would likely require resourcing well above currently planned levels.”

Pendleton told the senators that “completing maintenance on time has proven to be a wicked problem” with 2018 as particularly challenging with the equivalent of 17 ships and submarines not available “because they were waiting to get into or out of maintenance.”

“Looking forward, I do see some cause for concern because the dry docks are short about one-third of the capacity that will be needed to conduct the planned maintenance that the Navy already has on the books, and that doesn’t include the fleet increase.”

Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.) reiterated the problems of the USS Boise (SSN-764), which the November GAO report used as a prime example of maintenance delay issues. The submarine has waited so long for maintenance work that it lost its certification to dive underwater.

SSN-764 is planned to finally get its maintenance work started in early 2019, four years after it was scheduled for the work at Norfolk Naval Shipyard. The Boise’s maintenance work will instead be conducted by Huntington Ingalls Industries’ [HII] Newport News shipbuilding (Defense Daily, Oct. 20, 2017).

Adm. William Moran, Vice Chief of Naval Operations, admitted two other attack submarines are no longer certified to dive, although they are now planned to go into dry dock in the first half of 2019: the USS San Juan (SSN-751) and USS Charlotte (SSN-766).

Moran explained one of the causes for such long SSN delays is how they are lowest on the priority chain for nuclear-powered ships. The nuclear-armed ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) take priority as a nuclear deterrence asset, then aircraft carriers that have been riding at a high operational tempo for years and require more maintenance than previously anticipated, and only then do SSNs get fit in.

USS Boise (SSN-764) arrives at Huntington Ingalls Industries’ Newport News Shipbuilding division to begin its extended engineering overhaul. (Photo: HII)
USS Boise (SSN-764) arrives at Huntington Ingalls Industries’ Newport News Shipbuilding division to begin its extended engineering overhaul. (Photo: HII)

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, (D-Conn.) underscored he understood General Dynamics Electric Boat [GD], based in his state, has five million hours of labor it can provide for submarine maintenance from FY 2019-2024.

Secretary of the Navy Richard Spencer agreed the service is looking at assigning more maintenance work to private shipyards but underscored there is not a 100 percent correlation between building and maintenance skills. “They’re higher up the curve from starting at zero” but there is a difference from maintaining a vessel.

Spencer said he is hoping that as the Navy and GD work as partners they can “get a price point that is agreeable” for submarine maintenance work.

The report noted prior studies found three main drivers of maintenance delays at naval shipyards: poor conditions and aging equipment limiting the ability of the yards to meet current and future demands, shipyard workforce gaps and large portions of the workforce inexperienced, and depot supply support not being cost effective.   

The GAO said manning shortfalls and experience gaps contribute to a continued high sailor workload and are likely to continue through at least FY 2021.

Pendleton said he was happy to report progress on GAO’s and the Navy’s own recommendations on readiness and is working with the Navy and monitoring progress, even if they have a long road ahead.

“I’m and encouraged by what I see. But make no mistake, it will take significant time to rebuild the readiness in the ship, submarine, and aviation fleets and it will require sustained attention,” Pendleton said.