A new report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) says the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps are beginning to address the causes of their readiness decline, but recovery will take years as they face multiple challenges.
The Department of Defense has stated that the extended conflict in the post-9/11 era combined with budget uncertainty and reductions in force structure has degraded its readiness. The 2018 National Defense Strategy called for improving the readiness and lethality of U.S. military forces. Readiness challenges like maintenance delays that keep ships in dry docks or planes on the ground have reduced the availability of forces for training and operations.
Significant readiness challenges have developed over more than a decade of conflict, budget uncertainty, and reductions in force structure. These challenges prevent the Navy and Marine Corps from reaping the full benefit of their existing forces and attaining the level of readiness called for by the 2018 National Defense Strategy.
GAO’s December 2 report notes that both services have made encouraging progress identifying the causes of their readiness decline and have begun efforts to arrest and reverse it, but fully addressing these challenges will require years of sustained management attention and resources. Recent events, such as the ongoing pandemic and the fire aboard the USS Bonhomme Richard affect both current and future readiness and are likely to further compound and delay the services’ readiness rebuilding efforts.
In particular, the Navy faces multiple interrelated challenges in the areas of maintenance, personnel, and training that continue to hinder its efforts to rebuild ship and submarine readiness.
GAO found that the Navy is frequently unable to complete scheduled ship maintenance on time and incurred over 38,900 days of maintenance delay from fiscal year 2014 through fiscal year 2020. This equates to the loss of 15 ships on average each year. Contributing factors include insufficient shipyard capacity, operational deployments, and a shortage of skilled personnel.
Back in March 2020, GAO found 150 examples of systemic maintenance problems across every class of ship the Navy built during the last 10 years.Sailors showed GAO problems like failed engines, faulty electronics, and clogged toilets that broke shortly after construction and cost the Navy over $4 billion to fix.
Delays in depot maintenance also contribute to limited availability of aircraft for both the Navy and Marine Corps, as do personnel shortages and diminishing manufacturing sources for parts. GAO previously reported (August 2020) that of the 19 individual fixed- and rotary wing types of Navy and Marine Corps aircraft it examined, only one met the service-established mission capable goal for fiscal year 2019. For fiscal year 2019, three were from 6 to 15 percentage points below the goal; and 16 were more than 15 percentage points below the goal, including 11 that were 25 or more percentage points below the goal.
The Navy faces multiple workforce challenges at naval shipyards. It is also reassessing and increasing the personnel requirements for its ships but does not expect to meet these updated baselines for several more years. These efforts have resulted, for example, in average increases to crew sizes of 32 personnel for DDG 51 class destroyers and 28 personnel for CG 47 class cruisers. In addition to updating ships’ crew requirements, the Navy has also set targets that establish minimum thresholds for filling ship billets with qualified sailors. GAO says that meeting the increased requirements will pose challenges. Navy officials have noted that there is a lag between crew requirements being increased and the funding, or authorization, of additional billets. Funding additional billets within the Navy’s limited end strength is the first challenge, since there is a constraint on the number of sailors available for distribution across the fleet. The second and perhaps longer-term challenge is recruiting and retaining enough qualified sailors to meet the Navy’s rising crew targets and ensuring that ships are safely operated.
The watchdog has praise for the Navy’s work to improve training. For example, the December 2 report notes that the Navy established controls to limit waivers that allowed training lapses to worsen, and it now requires multiple high-level approvals for ships to operate uncertified. There is still some room for improvement in the training area though with GAO calling for improvements to surface warfare officer training.
GAO has previously reported that COVID-19 has affected the Navy’s and Marine Corps’ ability to conduct work at its depots.For example, reductions in operations at the Albany, Georgia and Barstow, California production plants (both Marine Corps depots) have decreased operating capacity to less than 20 percent.
The CARES Act appropriated $475 million to the Navy Working Capital Fund to prevent, position, prepare for, and respond to the coronavirus, domestically or internationally. The Navy Working Capital Fund was below its lower cash requirement for most of fiscal year 2020, even after receiving the CARES Act appropriation. However, the fund’s cash balance ended fiscal year 2020 at about $2.2 billion, which is above its lower cash requirement. This was achieved in part by transferring an additional $731 million from other DOD accounts into the Navy Working Capital Fund in September 2020, and other management actions that increased the fund’s balance.
The Navy’s and Marine Corps’ longstanding readiness challenges have inevitably been compounded by the effects of the pandemic and several debilitating accidents in recent years. GAO plans to report on how the pandemic has impacted both services in the early part of 2021.