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U.S. Fleet Sinking in a Sea of Maintenance and Manufacturing Woes

Our United States has always been a seagoing nation. Framed by the Pacific, Atlantic, Caribbean, and the Gulf of Mexico, America from its founding has been reliant on seas and sailors for commerce, expansion, exploration, and defense. We rely heavily on our merchant marine and our commercial ports to keep the nation’s economic engine running. We rely on our Coast Guard to protect our interests in and around vital seaports, and on our uniformed Navy to ensure we have an all-access pass to the world’s oceans and seas.

While most of us don’t think about it much, that’s heady stuff and a stiff mission profile for our United States Navy. It’s also why a decline in the number of ships in US fleet strength plus what seems like a constant drumroll of serious Navy maintenance problems is—or should be—so concerning. The decline in hulls composing our various worldwide fleets can mostly be blamed on poor prior planning. You know that stuff that’s supposed to prevent piss-poor performance?

For example, the Navy’s planned Marine hauler the medium landing ship (LSM) is now projected to cost upwards of $400 million, or double its original cost estimate, if any ever get built. Someone needs a math refresher in the Navy Department. Or maybe just enough courage and clout to hold contractors to their original estimates. Even if Navy brass is willing to play hardball, there’s also an element of poor planning in other areas. How about the new guided missile frigates (Constitution class) that are now projected for delivery three years after they were promised? Or the third Ford class aircraft carrier that’s likely to be nearly two years behind its scheduled launch?

Delays and staggering cost overruns like those—and there are plenty more examples in the new construction pipelines—can only put excess pressure on what ships the Navy can keep floating and operating from current inventories. Official Navy says much of this can be blamed on “first-in-class challenges and design maturity” issues. Unlike peer challengers (read China here), the US Navy has aimed too high with demands that involve generational leaps in technology rather than relying on tried, tested, and proven gear that can be manufactured and delivered on time and within budget parameters.

Break it down Barney-style and it’s a matter of money, politics, and ever-shifting conceptions of our Navy’s mission in the next global confrontation. The average US Navy warship runs just under $3 billion, so there’s a lot of money to be spent and made in any shipbuilding endeavor. Pork, regional grandstanding, and partisan politics are involved which often makes deciding what to build and where to build it a time-sucking whirlpool. And building something as complex as an aircraft carrier or nuclear submarine is no quickie slapdash operation as it often was during World War II, when all hands involved in and out of uniform turned to with vital motivation. Rosie the Riveter now carries a union card.

Lack of skilled labor, industrial greed, and partisan politics all play a role but such long lead times often leave fleet sailors adrift trying to make chicken salad out of chicken excrement in an aging fleet. Makes me wonder if there isn’t someone among the 150 or so technical ratings in the US Navy that can fix what’s broken without having to put an entire vessel into drydock for long maintenance periods. Granted that’s an over-simplification, and there are some systems or equipment that need a manufacturer’s tech rep. Occam’s razor might apply. Either buy simpler gear that can do the same thing or train our Navy maintainers up to tech-rep standards.

It puzzles me that we had a Navy during World War II full of former shade-tree mechanics, factory hands, and hot-rod builders that always seemed to figure out maintenance solutions on the fly, but we can’t find among the current generation of video gamers, programmers, and cell phone junkies enough talent and problem-solving acumen to fix what ails most of our shipboard systems. In a time-and-money crunch at sea, I’ll trust that tech-savvy sailor or salty Chief over a clock-watching civilian on an hourly-wage and per diem allowance every time.

Navy leadership seems to be aware of maintenance problems as well as shortages in our in our dwindling fleet of slightly less than 300 deployable vessels. CNO Admiral Lisa Franchetti recently announced “a deep dive” into these problems at the highest service levels. And Rear Admiral Fred Pyle, Director of Surface Warfare, is quoted in Defense News commenting about surface fleet maintenance standards: “We have 73 destroyers in the fleet today. We’ve been building this program for four years; we’ve been modernizing these ships for over three decades. So there’s a ton of data out there.” Admiral Pyle concludes by hoping that all that info can be digested and distributed into some kind of program that sailors can access and use to affect repairs.

Meanwhile, our Navy seems to be steaming in circles. Some of that is necessary with ships like the USS Gravely and USS Carney plus some other destroyers handily shooting down Houthi missiles in the Red Sea. And then there’s the aging and poorly maintained USNS vessels headed out on a humanitarian mission to help construct a floating drydock off the Israeli coast. One of those (USNS 2nd Lt. John P. Bobo) had to return to the US after an engine room fire. Other ships on that same mission limped across the Med, nursing breakdowns along the way, to finally bring their pieces of the JLOTS (Joint Logistics Over The Shore) system into the humanitarian boondoggle off Gaza. It’s turning out to be something just shy of a comedy of errors.

If you’re an American fleet sailor, likely none of this decrepitude comes as a surprise. USNS vessels are notoriously low on the priority totem pole, but other maintenance disasters are more cringeworthy. Look back to 2020 when the Navy completely lost the USS Bonhomme Richard (LHD-6), a sorely needed amphibious assault ship that was nearly burned to the waterline and had to be scrapped due to sloppy maintenance and alleged arson by one of her own sailors. Or more recently, the case of another amphibious ship the USS Boxer (LHD-4) that struggled trying to get to sea out of a west coast shipyard several times only to boomerang back with one sort of breakdown or another. She’s back in San Diego crawling with tech reps right now rather than out on patrol where she needs to be carrying a contingent of Marines.

Hard to say what the fix is to the fixing in our Navy right now. Likely it’s a Campbell soup thing with all sorts of ingredients involved in the mix. My own military experience tells me one thing for sure and it should be announced over the 1-MC daily aboard each one of our vessels at sea: “Sailors, if you can’t fix it, don’t expect to fight with it for as long as needed. Turn to and carry on smartly.”

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