Vice Admiral McCoy has spent five years as Commander of Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA) working to correct a problem that seldom makes headlines. While reports on new ship construction dominate the trade press, much less attention is paid to maintaining the ships already in the Fleet. McCoy spent his career as an engineer focused on the exacting maintenance of submarines and aircraft careers. While at NAVSEA, McCoy focused his attention to bring the same rigor to the surface fleet.
When he took the helm of the command in 2008, the health of the surface fleet was at a ten-year low. McCoy’s evaluation of surface problems was dovetailed with a 2010 report commissioned by U.S. Fleet Forces and the Pacific Fleet, the Fleet Review Panel, commonly called the Balisle Report after the panel head, retired Vice Admiral Phillip Balisle. Under McCoy’s guidance, NAVSEA has drastically restructured how it maintains the health of surface forces. Outside of congressional testimony, he has not spoken often about his time at NAVSEA in public. On the eve of his retirement, he outlined his half-decade journey for the Naval Institute’s Online Editor Sam LaGrone.
Proceedings: What is your intent in granting us this interview?
McCoy: My overall goal is to tell young junior officers, chiefs, and other enlisted personnel serving as surface warriors that Navy leadership has taken stock of the material and maintenance issues that developed in the mid-1990s and the early 2000s. We understand the root causes. We’ve implemented programs and processes and secured funding to improve the material readiness of the surface fleet.
I want to talk to them about what they can expect to see over the rest of their careers in terms of how we maintain our surface fleet so we can achieve the full service lives of our ships. For example, 40 years is the expected service life of the Arleigh Burke DDG-51 Flight IIA class, and that’s what we’re counting on. A lot of these programs are rolling out now and hopefully this discussion will provide some perspective on the past and where we are headed in the future.
I’ve mostly worked submarine and carrier overhauls as an engineering duty officer where we have a very disciplined process—rigorous, engineering-based class maintenance plans that tell us what we need to do to get the ship to its full expected service life. Out of a Los Angeles–class submarine, we routinely get 33 years. That’s its design life. Last year we decommissioned the USS Memphis (SSN-691) at exactly 33 years.
We also know how to get carriers to their full expected service lives. The USS Enterprise (CVN-65) had a service life of 50 years, and we got 51. For submarines, with their certify-to-dive requirements, we have fully funded their maintenance. Likewise, for aircraft carriers we have a flight-deck certification, and because we only have small numbers and they are so important to what the U.S. Navy does around the world, we must maintain a very high degree of readiness. We also have fully funded their maintenance.
For surface ships, we have not had that disciplined, engineered approach to defining, funding, and executing maintenance plans. From 2005 to 2008, I was the NAVSEA chief engineer. I started seeing significant issues with the material condition of the surface force. Back in 2006, I remember when we discovered significant hull-thinning issues with the FFG-7 class [Oliver Hazard Perry frigates], along with some issues with cruisers. We had to take numerous ships offline for part of that year just to do fundamental structural integrity work on them.
Proceedings: Did that have anything do to with maintenance?
McCoy: Yes, it did. We were not doing rigorous surveys, and we were not funding the maintenance. That was unplanned maintenance that we had to do in the middle of the ships’ operational cycle, and it is very disruptive to the Fleet.
As we were dealing with that, I was contrasting the surface force with the submarine and aircraft carrier fleets. The surface force was suffering because we had underfunded and understated requirements.
We didn’t really know what the requirements were, because we hadn’t done the engineering underpinning. Folks on the waterfront, the port engineers working for the type commander, for example, were trying to do the best they could with the maintenance dollars they received. They would focus on what they needed to get the ship under way for the next deployment? Fix the fire pump; fix the things that are broken, the valves that are leaking. The real question was: Who’s looking out for the CNO’s [Chief of Naval Operations’] interest in getting the ship to its full service life, and who knows where each ship stands in this regard? For a DDG-51 Flight IIA-class ship, this is 40 years.
The answer: Nobody.
Proceedings: This was 2006 or so?
McCoy: That was the journey in 2005 to 2006, when I was the NAVSEA chief engineer.
We started working on this whole concept of “How do we take surface ships and treat them more like submarines and aircraft carriers in terms of maintenance on the waterfront? How do we make sure they reach their full expected service life and remain warfighting effective?”
I took command of NAVSEA in 2008 with this stark contrast for how we treat our surface ships compared to submarines and aircraft carriers.
Two things stood out in particular: First, you can’t build your way to a 300-plus-ship Navy. We needed the 300-plus ships based on our analysis of the world to do our mission. Second, the nation was becoming more and more dependent on the Aegis BMD [ballistic-missile-defense] mission that our cruisers and destroyers were ideally suited for.
What I was concerned about was the fundamental reliability of the platform when these ships were on station with the BMD mission.
How do we make sure the hull and the propulsion plant and the mechanical, electrical, and auxiliary systems are going to hold up so they can do a full deployment and not have to pull the ships off station?
Proceedings: What then?
McCoy: We took an overlay of the process that we use to maintain submarines, and we looked at where we were in the surface world—where all of our gaps were—and we called that our big rock chart. These were our gaps. We did not have class maintenance plans that we could use to defend the right budget for surface maintenance. We didn’t have an assessment plan or policy. The sustainment program was bad. We didn’t have the folks looking at the ships, writing up the work items, getting the stuff fed into working packages down the road. We didn’t have the Regional Maintenance Center [RMC] capability and capacity, and we weren’t analytical and thorough about what jobs did get done and which ones didn’t. For the jobs that didn’t get done, we needed to explain why that was okay and where we needed to fit them in down the road.
In fall 2008 I put together three goals for focusing on surface-force readiness. I laid these out for then-CNO Admiral Gary Roughead in my first meeting with him after taking command.
First was to develop and get all of our ships into rigorous, engineering-based class maintenance plans so we knew what had to be done when, and what the budget requirements were to fully fund this maintenance. This was the first step in getting OPNAV [Office of the CNO] to properly fund the maintenance of surface ships—on an engineered basis that is defendable.
Second, we had to assess where our ships were in terms of existing material conditions—hull thickness, tank conditions, mechanical systems, propulsion systems, CHT [collection, holding, and transfer] systems, fire-fighting systems; the key systems that define how long a ship can stay in service. It’s one thing to have a class maintenance plan, but we had to know exactly were our ships were in relation to that plan.
Every time a submarine comes into dry dock we do thousands of ultrasonic tests looking for cracks and determining hull thickness. We had to do a similar thing for surface ships so we knew where they were in their lifetime.
Finally, we had to revitalize the RMCs that oversee the contracting of private shipyard work for the surface force. The RMCs also execute intermediate-level repairs [below the level of shipyard complexity] that are so vital to everyday readiness and training of Fleet sailors to better understand how to maintain their ships while under way. The RMCs had been significantly downsized as a cost-saving measure and were no longer effective. As a prime example, we had millions of dollars of industrial equipment in inactive lay-up at the RMC in Mayport, Florida, because sailors were no longer being assigned due to billet cuts. At the same time, we had a backlog of incomplete maintenance on home-ported ships.
Proceedings: When did that cut occur?
McCoy: From about 2002 to about 2009. I’ll give you a quote from the Fleet Review Panel Report that addresses this: “The regional maintenance centers and the shore intermediate maintenance activities have undergone dramatic cuts in the last seven years. From nearly 8,000 billets to just over 2,500 billets in 2009.”
Proceedings: Where are those plans now?
McCoy: In spring 2012, I was able to testify before the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Readiness that surface-navy maintenance was fully funded. Equally as important, we knew what the requirement was based on firm engineering rigor. This was a four-year journey at that point.
Along the way, we had to create efficiencies in other parts of the NAVSEA business and work with OPNAV to redirect money to self-fund the surface-maintenance initiatives until we could establish programs of record. We had to build the program so Navy leadership could see the value and the output.
Year one, 2009, was focused on laying out the three goals and just getting started. We created the engineering organization to build the detailed class maintenance plans, and we went right to work producing them. We created and started shipboard pilots of the assessment plans we wanted so we could gauge the condition of each ship, and we laid out the plan to bring the RMCs into NAVSEA and start re-staffing, both military and civilian, and training our personnel. We did not know exactly what the ultimate result would look like at that point, but we knew the status quo was not good. We “stole” everything we could from how we maintained submarines and carriers to put into surface-ship maintenance.
In 2010 we gained consensus for the plan from Navy leadership. In particular, we received tremendous support from Admiral Roughead, who made several visits to NAVSEA to understand what we thought needed to be done. Early that year, the RMCs were realigned from the fleets to NAVSEA for operational control and oversight, and we went right to work on getting the staffing and the training right. Prior to that, NAVSEA was already responsible for contracting, legal, and technical oversight of the RMCs. Taking operational control of day-to-day maintenance executions made logical sense. Also, since NAVSEA was responsible for operating the four naval shipyards and executing submarine and carrier maintenance, we knew we could gain efficiencies by a national approach and standardization of maintenance execution.
Proceedings: What was the genesis of the Balisle Report? What made the Navy decide it needed an independent assessment of surface readiness?
McCoy: Admiral Robert Willard, former commander of U.S. Pacific Command, and Admiral John Harvey, former commander U.S. Fleet Forces, were reacting to a negative trend in material inspections, increasing backlog in maintenance not performed, and staffing and training issues on ships, and they said, “We’d like to get an independent look—not just looking at maintenance, staffing, or training, but holistically looking at the cumulative effect of decisions that were made since the early 1990s.”
Proceedings: Those decisions to what end? Were these cost-saving initiatives?
McCoy: Absolutely. Any one of them by itself seemed to make sense at the time they were made. But when you looked at the impact across the surface-warfare community, the cumulative effect was highly negative.
When Vice Admiral Balisle and his team of Fleet experts were working this at the start of 2010, their efforts and NAVSEA’s efforts were dovetailing very nicely. The Fleet Review Panel team made great recommendations that we agreed with fully. In particular, the report advocated for a more extensive role of the new SURFMEPP [Surface Maintenance, Engineering, Planning Program] organization we stood up to develop class maintenance plans to ensure surface ships achieve their full expected service lives.
From my perspective, the most important event occurred in spring 2010 when the two fleet commanders, Admiral Patrick Walsh and Admiral Harvey, the Commander of Naval Surface Forces, Vice Admiral Derwood Curtis, myself, and several others met in San Diego for a full day to review and discuss the Fleet Review Panel’s findings and decide on the way forward. At that meeting I presented what the NAVSEA team had been working on along with the new recommendations from the panel and laid out the cost estimates for executing surface maintenance in an engineered and rigorous manner—just like we were doing for submarines and carriers. At the end of the meeting, the two four-star fleet commanders slapped the table and said “This is where we’re going.”
That was year two. The really hard part was ahead of us—getting the initiatives and the maintenance plan in the budget for long-term sustainment. It follows the old expression: If you want to know what we value, look at our budget.
In year three, 2011, we brought to the table a consolidated approach for the class maintenance plans, the assessment of our ships, and staffing plans, regrowing and properly funding the intermediate level and the regional maintenance centers. By then we also had OPNAV N4 [deputy CNO for Readiness] validation of our class maintenance plans and the budget values associated with those plans. We now had an engineered basis for the budget estimates that we could defend. We also had strong support from Admiral Roughead and Vice CNO Admiral Jonathan Greenert and the two fleet commanders. In particular, my team and I maintained a steady 90-day drumbeat with Admiral Harvey at Fleet Forces Command, and he had a huge hand in helping shape the direction, focus, and urgency of our efforts. We were successful in getting the surface maintenance budget right.
Year four, 2012, and year five, 2013, are about execution and refinement.
Proceedings: Was this all scheduled to take this long?
McCoy: We did not have a schedule. We just knew we had to move out.
Proceedings: Can you give us an example of one of the assessment plans?
McCoy: We worked with the American Bureau of Shipping (ABS), which keeps almost 10,000 commercial ships a year in class, to make sure that their hulls and structures are safe. We didn’t want to reinvent the wheel, so we worked with the ABS to create a program for our surface ships, and we started doing pilots. Now when a ship goes into dry dock we do 5,000 to 6,000 ultrasonic tests to measure the thickness of the hull and structural members and tanks and piping systems. Then we tasked ABS to take what it was already doing for the commercial sector and build what we call finite element models to evaluate stress in the hull structure.
The idea was, we could figure out with our scarce resources where the hot spots were in terms of structural stress and fatigue so we could decide what repairs we could do now and which ones are less critical and can be deferred to a downstream maintenance period to save cost and schedule.
Proceedings: What did you find when you started doing the detailed assessments? Did the cost for maintenance grow?
McCoy: For years we had stopped looking hard at the condition of structure and tanks and when we got the ships on the dry dock blocks we found the tanks in particular were in bad condition. We experienced growth that was exceeding our budget and pushing schedules late. Starting in summer 2011, as we were putting more money into surface maintenance to turn the problem around, we started seeing that we had to get more disciplined. We told the waterfront, the crews and our maintenance people, “We want you to keep looking. We want to know all of the problems. We just can’t fix it all now.” We did engineering assessments to define the work we must do now, and the work we could defer (but keep track of) until the next scheduled overhaul so that it could be efficiently accomplished with proper planning, material staging, et cetera, rather than as emergent growth in the middle of a maintenance availability. We put out policy to govern this, and that’s what we’re using right now.
What we are seeing is the manifestation of 15 years of underfunded and understated maintenance because it wasn’t driven by a firm requirement. Now, we’re catching up.
Proceedings: What now?
McCoy: It’s going to take us on the order of five to eight years until we get all of our ships through a docking cycle. We recently briefed the Navy leadership that it’s going to take that long to catch up from underfunded and deferred maintenance. We have a commitment to get there. We have organizations and processes in place now.
Proceedings: Has what has gone on before this effort cut off years from the surface fleet?
McCoy: We think most of it is recoverable. However, there is a cost factor that increases with deferred maintenance. We know if you go into a tank and there’s a certain amount of degradation in the paint and coating system and corrosion, if you don’t fix it then but fix it a year or two later it greatly increases cost. If you fix it three to five years later it’s even greater. It’s an exponential increase the longer you wait. The biggest issue we have with deferred maintenance is not only its cost but also its impact on operational availability. Our BMD cruisers and destroyers are heel-to-toe scheduled for their deployments. They’re that valuable to the combatant commanders. If we go long on availability it impacts the whole sequence of deployers. That’s what’s bad about deferred maintenance—the surprise factor.
Proceedings: Could you put a percentage on how much more you would have to spend on maintenance?
McCoy: That’s tough—very tough. It could be small to large amounts, depending on whether we have to do a major structural rip out, like the replacement of girders and things like that.
Proceedings: This has been five years of work for you. How do you feel about the progress nearing the end of your time at NAVSEA?
McCoy: To turn around and address a significant issue like this and take it from: the problem laid out; to problem identified; to consensus built in the Navy for what needs to be done; to getting the solutions into the budget cycle; to dealing with the correction of the problem in execution; and finally, refining the plan, it takes a long time to work it. I’m grateful that I had five years to work this problem. I really have to recognize the persistent work of the NAVSEA key team—the RMC folks led by Read Admiral Dave Gale, and the engineering, program, and planning personnel led by Rear Admirals Tom Eccles, Jim McManamon, and Jim Shannon. They stuck with this and made real changes for the good of the Navy.
Proceedings: With the lessons you have learned, do you feel like you have the problem solved?
McCoy: Admiral Harvey, when he retired, put out lessons learned to the surface community. One of the things he was very concerned about was that the lessons of the Fleet Review Panel and that the effort we went through in the last couple of years would not be lost—so history would not repeat itself. I think we caught this problem at the right time.
There is a growing demand and need for the BMD mission for our ships to stay at sea around the world in increasing numbers and be highly reliable. If you look at our amphibious ships, they are in huge demand by the combatant commanders in everything from presence, to deployment, to hot spots around the world. The cost of the ships isn’t going down, and you can’t build your way to the Navy of the right size. The cheapest way to own the Navy is to take care of the things you already bought and paid for with the nation’s treasury.
Proceedings: Is this surface maintenance refresh the highlight of your tenure at NAVSEA?
McCoy: It’s the thing I spent most of my time on. It needed a lot of energy and focus to look at the surface-maintenance issues in a holistic fashion. This is a problem that had to be worked at the three- and four-star level.
Proceedings: If you had another day in the job, what would you like to focus on?
McCoy: That’s easy—execution of the plan we put in place. It’s ensuring we stay on our planning milestones, our execution milestones to ensure on-time completion of maintenance. It’s being as efficient as possible in our processes with our industrial partners to drive out costs so we can get as much wrench-turning bang for the buck. There’s still a lot of work to be done. Our funding challenges put pressure on the government and industry teams to drive that cost out. Understand what is the right maintenance, when is the right time to do it, and get these ships back on deployment.
This is a ten-year journey, and we’re halfway through. We’ve defined the requirements, we’ve defined the plan, we’ve budgeted the requirements, and now we have to optimize the execution.
Proceedings: Is there a cultural component in the surface community that needs to change?
McCoy: Sailors fundamentally want to keep their ships in top condition. The surface community needs to see sustained Navy leadership commitment that we are serious about funding and executing the maintenance required to keep our ships ready and to achieve their full expected service lives. If the leadership commitment is there, a culture that respects the value of maintenance will be there. That’s why I want to get the story out for those young folks on surface ships for them to see that we have taken a hard look at what those issues are. They’re still dealing with them, that backlog of deferred maintenance. They’re still walking around their ships saying “How come I can’t get this fixed?” What we are trying to tell them is we understand the problem. We can’t do it all at once. We have a plan to get it done. Hold us accountable to that plan, and over their careers they will see us really getting this problem behind us.
This is going to be a challenge as budgets get squeezed. But I’m convinced the most cost-effective way to run our Navy is to keep the ships we already bought well maintained and operationally effective until the end of their full expected service lives.