With President Ronald Reagan’s concept of a 600-ship fleet now cut in half a quarter century later – and expected to remain closer to the 300 level for at least the next few decades – the U.S. Navy has significantly increased efforts to keep its existing and few new ships in peak operating condition, even beyond their original intended lifespans.
Key to that is the Surface Maintenance Engineering Planning Program (SURFMEPP), stood up under Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA) in November 2010 to provide enhanced life cycle maintenance engineering for surface ships. It replaced the then only 18-month-old Surface Ship Life Cycle Management (SSLCM) program to better address increasing life cycle maintenance goals and requirements.
“The fleet review panel, stood up by Fleet Forces Command and CINCPACFLEET [commander in chief Pacific Fleet], recognized we were on the right path and endorsed a further expansion of the function,” Rear Adm. James McManamon, deputy commander-Surface Warfare (SEA 21) Naval Sea Systems Command, said. “We hadn’t gone that far in the past due to budget concerns, but with that endorsement we were able to move out literally within months to create a new agreement on the size, scope, and funding of our life cycle activity, which became SURFMEPP.
“SURFMEPP represents an evolutionary step from SSLCM in delivering a comprehensive assessment and sustainment infrastructure for the surface fleet. The transition from SSLCM to SURFMEPP recognizes the vital and significant revolution that has happened in how the Navy views the importance of surface ship maintenance. We are improving the communication between NAVSEA and fleet operators regarding ship maintenance and modernization.”
SURFMEPP was modeled after the U.S. Navy Submarine Maintenance Engineering Planning and Procurement Activity (SUBMEPP) and the Carrier Planning Activity (CPA), which is separate from SURFMEPP, even though both address components of the surface fleet.
“We felt there were some proven practices and processes – although there obviously are some differences – and we have been working very closely with SUBMEPP and CPA in terms of products, processes, and tools, to the point where they provided personnel to help us as we set up our processes,” McManamon said. “We executed the products they produced, such as technical foundation papers for the budgeting process, using them to help jumpstart this.”
When SSLCM was stood up in May 2009, the focus was on the technical rigor involved in integrating a class maintenance plan, corrosion control, and an increased ability to produce technical foundation papers for each surface ship class.
“That was the core of the life cycle management activity,” McManamon noted. “We recognized there were other things we could be doing, but we didn’t have the time nor resources. One of the products we knew we should do was build a baseline availability work package for each maintenance availability – roughly a nine-week period. In the submarine community, those were developed by SUBMEPP and worked during execution-year planning with the type commander [TYCOM].
“So some of the big changes in going from SSLCM to SURFMEPP were to fully populate – with additional resources and bodies – the ability to produce technical foundation papers for all my surface ship classes and start the baseline availability work packages for all FY 12 and FY 13 availabilities.”
A major difference between SURFMEPP and its carrier and submarine counterparts is the sheer size of the surface fleet and the variety of ship classes and multiple homeports involved. Where CPA uses public shipyards and long-range availabilities to handle a single ship class, for example, SURFMEPP must contend with five different homeports, 22 construction repair contracts, and 14 different ship classes.
“So partly it’s a matter of getting our hands around the scope. Building the technical foundation papers for the budget process gives us the ability to set requirements for the resource in future years. The baseline availability work package allows us to actually build the availability using the class maintenance plan and work with the TYCOMs on current-year funding, then keep track of it all,” he said.
“One of the big advantages of a SURFMEPP organization is to actually resource people to do not only the technical rigor, which is important, but also to manage and keep track of requirements, availability work, whether it was completed, who adjudicates a repair before it becomes a crisis, and get funded to do that. It’s not that the surface Navy didn’t do these things, it’s just that they were so scattered and it was extremely hard to make the case, because of all those variables, that we needed additional resources for surface ship maintenance.”
In mid-2008, the TYCOMs responded to reports of declining ship performance by ordering a return to basics, working directly with the program managers, maintainers, and others to execute proper training and maintenance as it was then defined. However, that was only the foundation on which NAVSEA moved to enhance, expand, and expedite surface maintenance efficiencies, effectiveness, and costs.
“When two ships failed to meet all requirements for inspection and survey two-and-a-half years ago, that energized everyone to look at how we were maintaining those ships. We did a pilot program with the American Bureau of Shipping, as an outside third party,” McManamon said.
“We took them aboard four ships that were in avail [availability] and asked them what they do to ensure ships in the commercial world maintain class – i.e., the ability to operate and last. We asked them to use their processes for Navy ships so I can tell the CNO [Chief of Naval Operations] if our ships have the ability, the core strength, the right foundations, to actually make it through their expected surface life.”
As components of the new approach came together, it affected not only the role of SURFMEPP, but also detachments in Norfolk, San Diego, Pearl Harbor, and Mayport Naval Air Station, Fla.
“That was a lesson learned from the sub activity, who told us we had to be sure to have some level of fleet liaison on the waterfront to understand the day-to-day maintenance challenges being seen,” he added.
As a new effort demanding additional paperwork and personnel hours to create a maintenance portfolio on each ship and ship type at a time of ever-tighter budgets, however, SSLCM and then SURFMEPP have had their critics.
“The advantages of having a SURFMEPP activity is the ability to analyze the life cycle costs and repairs and make adjustments for coming years to actually reduce the maintenance requirement,” McManamon explained. “So while I’m challenged by the surface community that all I’m doing is adding maintenance bills to the system, what I’m really doing is getting enough data to get a handle on necessary repairs so I can actually start reducing the maintenance bill.”
Capt. Timothy Corrigan was the first commander for both SSLCM and SURFMEPP, before being named fleet maintenance officer for the Commander-Naval Surface Force Atlantic. In January 2011, prior to his reassignment, Corrigan gave a briefing on the status and goals of SURFMEPP. Included in his list of improvements SURFMEPP brings to Navy surface fleet maintenance were:
- elimination of “tribal knowledge” and deckplate decisions;
- accurate assessment of each ship “fit for fight/fit for service”;
- readiness measured in capability; and
- proper budgeting for what needs to be done.
By “tribal knowledge,” McManamon said, Corrigan meant both the diverse backgrounds of surface Navy personnel and the knowledge that individual port engineers have on the status, conditions, and repair activities related to each ship in their ports. While that is a positive point, it also has a negative side – a lack of corresponding knowledge about similar situations in other ports and ships.
“So you would have an ability to understand cracks on one ship and the process developed to look for maintenance needs, but there was no way to really share that with the same type cruiser in another homeport. That takes a knowledge sharing network,” he said. “So [Corrigan] was referring to SURFMEPP’s ability to share that type of tribal knowledge across the entire maintenance community.
“We don’t replace the shipboard maintenance team, we work closely with them. The port engineer is the head of that team, which also includes the TYCOM reps and the folks dealing with day-to-day budget issues. We work with all those; it’s just a matter of how to best capture, use, and analyze that knowledge, then make improvements to go forward, which is exactly what SURFMEPP gets to do.”
The process also benefits from having SURFMEPP, SUBMEPP, and CPA all reporting to the same admiral within NAVSEA, enhancing their ability and procedures to share information, techniques, and lessons learned.
“For example, we manage more than 6,000 tank and void systems on our ships. But corrosion requirements don’t care what ship they are on, so we use the same program and definitions instituted years ago to manage tanks on carriers,” McManamon explained.
“Which is important, because if I avoid tank and void repairs, the price will double in two years; in six, it will be nine times higher, an exponential curve. And then I have no choice but to repair it. So what I’m really working on is avoiding the crisis – planning for it and leveling things out to gain additional efficiency.”
All three organizations trace their beginnings to a program begun in the late 1960s – Planning and Engineering for Repair and Alterations (PERA). As a result of budget cuts, the Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) program and other factors, the submarine community evolved a separate program as SUBMEPP, as did the carrier community with CPA.
“The surface Navy turned it over to our supervisors of shipbuilding in each homeport and gradually reduced the bodies and funding that could do this, until we eventually simply quit doing the work. So they aren’t totally different, but it does take a different focus to look at life cycle issues and plan for availabilities versus the day-to-day engineering on any given ship,” McManamon said. “Because there are different sponsors and levels of readiness, compared to carriers and subs, we’re further back and it will take some time to come up to their level.”
The other two communities have been working closely with the new surface ship program to help speed its development, especially in dealing with issues they already faced and resolved.
“At various times during our development, the SUBMEPP and carrier people would come over for up to a couple of weeks to tell us how their organizations were set up, how their process flowed, and what tools they are using,” he added.
“Because we had permission to grow and expand, we have hired some folks from the carrier community, while trying to avoid fratricide. Capt. Corrigan was the head of CPA four years ago when I started down this path, investigating what it would take to stand up SSLCM. So he was one of the first people I worked with to get an understanding of this. Later, I was able to get him appointed as my standup for SURFMEPP.”
Because there are a large number of duplicate issues for the two organizations, when McManamon first proposed a surface fleet organization similar to CPA, the Navy vice chief of staff asked why CPA could not simply be expanded to cover all other surface ships. Or, if there were advantages to having a separate organization, at least in the beginning, if it would not be more efficient and practical in the long run to merge SURFMEPP and CPA.
“We told the vice chief that right now, we need to maintain a laser-like focus on surface ship readiness, while working closely with those other two activities,” McManamon recalled. “I can envision, as we become more mature, there will be discussions about combining the functions of some of these activities. But I wouldn’t recommend that for at least the next few years.”
As the program continues to evolve, McManamon is striving to ensure he has the right number of people with the right experience and expertise to keep SURFMEPP moving forward as quickly as possible.
“I’m really looking for smart engineers who know both ships and waterfront. For example, we recently hired 12 people in San Diego who have pretty varied backgrounds – from a port engineer to former active-duty ships engineers, one with previous experience working with PERA 20 years ago. They all see the value from a life cycle perspective, so training good waterfront engineers on the tools we are using is good cross-pollination,” he said.
“I have about 164 surface ships covered by SURFMEPP. In my ideal state, which has been supported in the future budget, people have recognized I probably need from 150 to 250 people to do this kind of job for that many ships. To get that kind of growth in the kind of contentious budget situations we’ve had the past two years speaks well to where the Navy thinks the priority is for this kind of operation.”
Another part of the effort to move SURFMEPP forward quickly, while ensuring it does not become isolated from those it eventually touches, is to have all of those shareholders in on its development from the beginning.
“That’s one reason why my ‘co-host’ for Team Ships is [Rear] Adm. Dave Lewis, the PEO Ships, who owns the Program Executive Office and people building the ships my program managers take care of once they are delivered and commissioned. So we have created an organization that provides a feedback loop right back into NAVSEA on these issues,” he said.
“CPA has done this pretty successfully, as has SUBMEPP. Because we use our ship design managers, who are right here within NAVSEA, as our technical authorities for operating in SURFMEPP, we actually inform as we make adjustments with modernization efforts for in-service ships or the engineering control process for those still being built.
Comprising Lewis’ PEO Ships and McManamon’s Sea 21, Team Ships has the overall responsibility to acquire and support the current and future surface fleet, translating warfighter requirements into combat capability and producing and supporting ships, boats, and craft from cradle to grave.
While it eventually will cover all surface ship maintenance and life cycle requirements, the initial priority for SURFMEPP is the No. 1 problem for ocean-going vessels – corrosion – which McManamon calls “the cornerstone” of the organization’s creation. Corrosion accounts for about 25 percent of the surface ship maintenance budget; SURFMEPP’s goal is to significantly reduce that cost by the end of FY 11.
“I have an entire functional group focusing on how to get a better execution within our availabilities, management, and budgets on corrosion issues in surface ships. Corrosion is not a simple issue nor does it have a simple solution. But what we needed in the surface Navy was management of our solution sets,” he concluded.
“So I designated SURFMEPP – and SSLCM before that – as my waterfront management, programming, and budget agent for corrosion control issues. From a headquarters’ perspective, SURFMEPP is really helping me manage corrosion control efforts as we work with the waterfront to help make that better.”
This article first appeared in the Defense, Spring 2011 Edition.