A new Government Accountability Office (GAO) report finds the Navy is not positioned to provide battle damage repairs for its warships in a potential high-end fight and needs to improve its planning and overall capabilities.

“The Navy has identified several challenges with using its regular maintenance capability (which restores ships to fully operational status) to provide battle damage repairs during a great power conflict. Challenges include—the lack of established doctrine for battle damage repair, unclear command and control roles, and a shortage of repair capacity,” the GAO report published on June 2 said.

The office said the Navy has not needed to repair multiple battle-damaged ships in quick succession since World War II and the service also divested many wartime ship repair capabilities after the end of the Cold War. Therefore, any repairs in battle today would draw on the Navy’s regular personnel, resources and maintenance capabilities. 

However, with the rise of great power competitors capable of delivering high-end warfare threats, like China and Russia, “the Navy must now be prepared to quickly salvage and repair damage to a modern fleet,” the report said. 

The service is currently in the early stages of determining how it will provide battle damage repair during a conflict.

GAO pointed out there are eight organization responsible for the Navy’s 15 battle damage repair planning efforts, but “the Navy has not designated an organization to lead and oversee these efforts. Without designated leadership, the Navy may be hindered in its efforts to address the many challenges it faces in sustaining its ships during a great power conflict.”

The Navy Process For Repairing Ships Damaged in Battle, from Government Accountability Office report on Navy ship battle damage repair. (Image: GAO analysis of Department of Defense information)

GAO said while the Navy develops ship vulnerability models during acquisition to estimate conflict damage and inform war games, the service does not update them over a ship’s service life to reflect system changes that may affect the model’s accuracy.

“As a result, it lacks quality data on ship mission-critical failure points to inform its analysis of battle damage repair needs,” the report said. “Without periodically assessing and updating its models to accurately reflect the ship’s mission-critical systems, the Navy has limited its ability to assess and develop battle damage repair capabilities necessary to sustain ships in a conflict with a great power competitor.”

The report said while battle damage repair leverages the Navy’s regular maintenance capability, it has unique considerations such as work likely occurring in a combat zone or work locations at risk of attack. While normal repairs take months or years, a fleet in a conflict needs ships repaired to return to service as quickly as possible, it said, adding the scale of damage may be higher such that multiple ships are damaged at the same time so the Navy would need to decide which ships to repair quickly in-theater and which to send out for long-term repairs or be cannibalized. The Navy would also need to rely on resources positioned closer to the conflict to sufficiently restore capabilities to the fleet, GAO said.

GAO said the Navy has identified several specific challenges to using its current repair capability in this kind of conflict. This includes a lack of updated doctrine for battle damage repair; lack of clear roles and responsibilities in battle damage repair; reliance on maintenance contractors means sailors may not be adequately trained to conduct repairs in battle; a lack of logistics-focused war games; a reliance on contracted salvage support ships that may be unwilling to operate in conflict; a shortage of the right parts and materials for battle damage repair; unclear command and control responsibilities; and a reliance on civilian maintenance experts.

The report also noted the Navy is already operating its regular maintenance operations at or near full capacity with only a limited surge ability available and previous GAO reports have said the Navy’s maintenance process cannot keep up with current needs, let alone potential wartime needs.

The last challenge is unknown or unreliable availability of foreign ports closer to a conflict zone because they could come under threat of attack or wish to avoid becoming involved for political reasons.

The GAO said the Navy is developing options and is in the early stages of determining how to provide battle damage repair in a great power conflict scenario, with the office identifying 15 battle damage repair planning efforts.

“However, the Navy has not formally identified an organization to coordinate these multiple efforts, thereby avoiding overlap and ensuring the efforts collectively produce the required capability needed to prevail during a great power conflict,” GAO said. “In addition, the Navy lacks quality data on the vulnerability of its ships to inform efforts to analyze battle damage repair needs.”

The report makes three recommendations to the Secretary of the Navy: the secretary should designate an organization with the appropriate authority to lead and oversee development of the Navy’s battle damage repair capability; designate an organization to develop and issue guidance clarifying command and control responsibilities to execute battle damage repair; and establish guidance that requires the Navy to periodically assess and update ship vulnerability models to ensure they accurately reflect the ship’s mission-critical systems and inform battle damage repair planning efforts.

The Navy responded with partial concurrences.

On the first recommendation, the Navy said “although not officially designated via instruction or formal designation, Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA), in coordination with other stakeholders across the Navy enterprise, is the organization with the authority to lead and oversee development of the Navy’s battle damage repair capability and is recognized as such,”

The Navy also partially concurred with the second recommendation and similarly said NAVSEA has the command and control responsibilities to execute battle damage repair, but is not officially designated via instruction or formal designation to perform the roles.

The service also partially concurred with the last recommendation and said it updates ship vulnerability models in support of specific efforts like war games or modernization efforts.

“However, to better support battle damage repair, full ship vulnerability models will need to be maintained at a periodicity determined by NAVSEA subject matter experts such as technical warrant holders,” the Navy said.

GAO responded that “as discussed earlier in the report, ship vulnerability models may become outdated as a ship-class design evolves after the first ship in the class, ships undergo modifications after acquisition, or adversary threats evolve. In addition, older models may have limited utility as they reflect the level of detail that was technologically achievable at the time the ship was acquired.”

The report said the Navy updates ship vulnerability models when funded and requested by a fleet, and these often reflect only a portion of a model but not the complete model.

“We agree with the Navy’s commitment to updating ship vulnerability models. However, we continue to believe the frequency and factors requiring those updates should be established in guidance, to ensure the Navy is systematically updating models after it acquires ships,” the GAO said.