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U.S. Navy Maintenance and Modernization Suffer Due to Budget Woes

The Navy must systematically conduct maintenance and modernization of its force – not to mention repair ships when they are damaged – to keep them combat relevant and achieve the full expected service life (ESL) of its major capital investments.

“Much like putting off an oil change because you can’t afford the $20 service; we save in the short-term, but shorten the car’s life and add to the backlog of work for later.”

With conflicts and tension in the Middle East and Asia, piracy and illegal activities in Africa and Central America, and uncertainty just about everywhere, there are unprecedented “demand signal” results from the high value placed on warship presence by the combatant commanders around the world.

But despite the longer deployments and high demand for their service around the world, the U.S. Navy’s fleet is at the same time reducing or deferring major maintenance. Although Congress finally overcame some budget hurdles, the current fiscal crisis is breaking the orderly process of fixing the fleet.

USS Frank Cable (AS 40)

The submarine tender USS Frank Cable (AS 40) prepares to leave dry dock after receiving a $30 million overhaul, June 15, 2012. Frank Cable was temporarily relieved from conducting maintenance of submarines and service vessels deployed in the U.S. 7th Fleet area of responsibility by the submarine tender USS Emory S. Land (AS 39) and was in Portland, Ore. for a regular overhaul and dry-docking. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Chris Salisbury

Maintaining the surface fleet is especially challenging, as these ships operate in the harsh maritime environment and have been called upon to maintain persistent presence in many global hotspots, often on extended deployments. Maintenance is sometimes deferred because of funding or because the ships are away longer than anticipated, which can compound the requirement to do emergent repairs. Some ships that were expected to have retired are just proving to be too important, and so the cost of keeping those older ships going can be even more expensive. There are more than 160 ships in 12 ship-classes, with numerous variations within classes, based at nine different homeports, and the material condition of each one is different, so managing the maintenance is complicated. The budget woes make it worse.

The reduction of maintenance has been a function of budgetary uncertainty, as the Navy has had to operate under a continuing resolution. The “Department of Defense, Military Construction and Veterans Affairs, and Full-Year Continuing Appropriations Act, 2013” spending bill for fiscal year 2013 was finally passed by the Senate on  March 20, 2013, followed by the House the next day. The service has been forced to make draconian cuts following the enactment of the once-unthinkable sequestration. During the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the armed forces received supplemental funding to compensate for the extraordinary cost to operate and maintain the military beyond the normal budget requirements, but even that funding has gone away.

These financial factors have combined to have a debilitating effect on Navy fleet operations and depot maintenance. Navy leaders admit that deferring maintenance on ships and aircraft, suspending training and certifications, and taking other drastic cost-cutting measures will erode the readiness of the force.

USS Topeka (SSN 754)

The Los Angeles-class attack submarine USS Topeka (SSN 754) departs Naval Base Point Loma, Calif. for Portsmouth, N.H., Nov. 2, 2012. Topeka will undergo a scheduled three-year engineered overhaul at Portsmouth Naval Shipyard. Topeka was commissioned Oct. 21, 1989 and has been homeported in San Diego for the past 10-years. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Shannon Warner

Maintenance is classified as organizational (O-level), which can be performed by the ship’s crew on their own ship; intermediate (I-level), which is more significant, and usually requires some outside help; and depot level (D-level), which requires a shipyard and even perhaps a drydock to perform. Some nuclear-powered submarines and aircraft carriers require a lengthy and costly mid-life refueling overhaul which removes the ship from service for several years. Likewise, when a guided-missile destroyer or cruiser gets a mid-life modernization overhaul, the ship is not available to deploy for an extended period.

In a message from Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert on the Navy’s budget situation that was sent on to Navy admirals and senior executives just prior to sequestration kicking in on March 1, 2013, Greenert announced the plan to cancel the majority of surface ship maintenance availabilities at private shipyards between April and September. “This will affect about 30 of our 187 surface ships.”

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Capt. Edward H. Lundquist, U.S. Navy (Ret.) is a senior-level communications professional with more than...