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GAO: Unplanned Work, Shipyard Capacity Driving Chronic Maintenance Delays on Subs, Aircraft Carriers

Shipyard capacity and the performance of workers, coupled with unplanned work identified after maintenance planning is finished, constitute the main drivers of substantial maintenance delays at Navy shipyards, the Government Accountability Office said.

Norfolk Naval Shipyard in Virginia, Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard and Intermediate Maintenance Facility in Hawaii, Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Maine, and Puget Sound Naval Shipyard and Intermediate Maintenance Facility in Washington finished late on 38 of 51 maintenance periods for aircraft carriers and submarines set to be completed from fiscal years 2015 through 2019 — racking up 7,424 days of maintenance delay with an average of 113 days overdue for aircraft carriers and 225 days for submarines.

Through this time period, the Navy spent $2.8 billion on capital investments in shipyard, with an aim to improve shipyard performance. “However, the shipyards continue to face persistent and substantial maintenance delays that hinder the readiness of aircraft carriers and submarines,” GAO said in a new report mandated by a provision in the FY 2019 National Defense Authorization Act.

“Unplanned work—work identified after finalizing maintenance plans—contributed to more than 4,100 days of maintenance delays. Unplanned work also contributed to the Navy’s 36 percent underestimation of the personnel resources necessary to perform maintenance. The workforce factor contributed to more than 4,000 days of maintenance delay on aircraft carriers and submarines during fiscal years 2015 through 2019,” GAO wrote.

Overtime among certain production shops, such as painting or welding, averaged from 25 to 32 percent for fiscal years 2015 through 2019, with peak overtime as high as 45 percent, GAO found.

“Shipyard officials told us that production shops at all four shipyards are working beyond their capacity. Overtime at such rates has been noted as resulting in diminished productivity,” the report noted.

The Navy has updated planning documents and plans to annually update estimates, and also initiated the Shipyard Performance to Plan initiative in the fall of 2018 but has not yet developed 13 of 25 planned metrics, GAO said.

“In addition, the Shipyard Performance to Plan initiative does not include goals, milestones, and a monitoring process along with fully developed metrics to address unplanned work and workforce weaknesses,” the report continued. “Without fully developing metrics and implementing goals, action plans, milestones, and a monitoring process, the shipyards are not likely to address unplanned work and workforce weaknesses and the Navy is likely to continue facing maintenance delays and reduced time for training and operations with its aircraft carriers and submarines.”

Since 2015, GAO has issued more than 20 reports and pieces of testimony on issues with Navy maintenance including investments and the workforce. In that time, the agency has made 37 unclassified recommendations to the Defense Department; the DoD concurred with 35 of them and had implemented 10 as of this June. GAO began its newly published review in July 2019.

The Navy generally schedules maintenance periods, which can include ship overhauls, refits, and nuclear refueling, every two to three years for each aircraft carrier and every four to six years for submarines. Depending on the work needed, ships and subs can be in maintenance from six months to three years. “Idle time for submarines—time when submarines are waiting for available facilities to begin a maintenance period and unable to conduct normal operations—has grown in both frequency and duration each year from fiscal years 2015 through 2019,” said the report.

“According to NAVSEA and shipyard officials, the completion of maintenance periods on aircraft carriers is a higher priority than the completion of maintenance periods on Los Angeles and Virginia class submarines. Additionally, according to shipyard officials, the larger size of aircraft carriers allows for greater access to spaces within the ship to conduct maintenance activities whereas space on submarines is severely limited. Given the limited space, shipyard officials said that any disruptions to the sequence of work on the submarines can lead to maintenance delays,” GAO said. “Further, there are significantly more crew who contribute to the work performed during an aircraft carrier maintenance period—approximately 3,000 crew on an aircraft carrier during a maintenance period compared with about 150 crew on a submarine. According to officials at the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard, aircraft carrier crews are expected to contribute to as much as 10 percent of the planned work on an aircraft carrier during a maintenance period.”

GAO made three recommendations to the Secretary of the Navy: first, ensure that the Naval Sea Systems Command “fully analyzes the use of overtime among shipyard production shops, and updates workforce requirements to avoid the consistent use of overtime to meet planned maintenance requirements”; second, that they “identify a timeframe for completing the development of metrics for its Shipyard Performance to Plan initiative and complete the development of metrics to address the main factors contributing to maintenance delays and improve the timely completion of ship maintenance at Navy shipyards”; and third, develop and implement “goals, action plans, milestones, and a monitoring process for its Shipyard Performance to Plan initiative to address the main factors contributing to maintenance delays and improving the timely completion of ship maintenance at Navy shipyards.”

The Navy concurred with all of GAO’s recommendations, noting that NAVSEA “strives to achieve optimum balance in shipyard capacity to fleet workload requirements.”

Bridget Johnson
Bridget Johnson is the Managing Editor for Homeland Security Today. A veteran journalist whose news articles and analyses have run in dozens of news outlets across the globe, Bridget first came to Washington to be online editor and a foreign policy writer at The Hill. Previously she was an editorial board member at the Rocky Mountain News and syndicated nation/world news columnist at the Los Angeles Daily News. Bridget is a terrorism analyst and security consultant with a specialty in online open-source extremist propaganda, incitement, recruitment, and training. She hosts and presents in Homeland Security Today law enforcement training webinars studying a range of counterterrorism topics including conspiracy theory extremism, complex coordinated attacks, critical infrastructure attacks, arson terrorism, drone and venue threats, antisemitism and white supremacists, anti-government extremism, and WMD threats. She is a Senior Risk Analyst for Gate 15 and a private investigator. Bridget is an NPR on-air contributor and has contributed to USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, New York Observer, National Review Online, Politico, New York Daily News, The Jerusalem Post, The Hill, Washington Times, RealClearWorld and more, and has myriad television and radio credits including Al-Jazeera, BBC and SiriusXM.

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