GAO: Maintenance Delays Threaten U.S. Navy's Readiness

Norfolk Naval Shipyard (file image)

Published Dec 4, 2019 7:05 PM by The Maritime Executive

In a new report issued Wednesday, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) warned that "persistent and substantial" delays in vessel maintenance threaten the U.S. Navy's ability to sustain readiness. 

According to GAO, the Navy and its shipyard contractors were unable to complete scheduled ship maintenance on time for about 75 percent of the maintenance periods conducted between FY2014-FY2019. Over the same period, U.S. Navy ships spent over 33,700 more ship-days in maintenance than expected - more than nine ship-years of lost availability for training or tasking. As an example of the impact, in FY2019, maintenance delays resulted in the Navy losing the equivalent of 19 surface ships, according to GAO's calculations. 

In addition to readiness issues, the delays lead to increased costs. GAO estimated that the Navy spent more than $1.5 billion in support costs from FY2008-2018 due to delayed maintenance for its attack submarines alone.

GAO reiterated its previous analysis of the factors behind the Navy's maintenance delays, which include insufficient public shipyard capacity, deteriorating drydock facilities and shortages of skilled personnel. For example, at Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard in 2014 and 2015, two submarines were delayed by about 20 months each, in part because of a shortage of skilled shipfitters and welders. Operational decisions have a further effect: decreased crew levels, extended deployment periods and deferred maintenance take a toll on vessel asset integrity. 

These problems will take a long time to fix: the Navy estimates it will take 20 years to improve the infrastructure at its aging shipyards, four years to restore ship manning levels and several years to improve its maintenance planning. Over the same period, the Navy hopes to grow its fleet size from 292 to 355 ships. 

In testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Wednesday, U.S. Navy assistant secretary for acquisition James Guerts acknowledged the severity of the shipyard maintenance delays, but he also warned of the likely impact of a long-term continuing resolution in the event that Congress cannot come to agreeement on a full-year 2020 defense budget - a real possibility in the current political environment. Continuing resolutions freeze federal funding at current levels, which limits the service's ability to sign new procurement and maintenance contracts. "One of the biggest factors in maintenance delays is late planning and late award," he said. "And when we don't know what money is coming and in what sequence and at what time, all of our plans have to be re-planned and re-executed."