Recently Vice Admiral Tom Moore, Naval Systems Sea Command (NavSea), announced an extension in the expected service life of several classes of ships to 40 years as part of a plan to reach sooner the Navy’s goal of 355 ships. While some think this is sleight-of-hand, I say this step is not bold enough—change it to 50 now, for all Navy ships.
In 2018, new programs such as the Surface Maintenance Engineering Program—a bevy of professional engineers who study corrosion and structural failure modes, scope and advocate for lifecycle maintenance, and write policies that “brand” certain maintenance to prevent deferral—have resulted in rules that anticipate the wear and tear of seagoing service. They use standard work templates based on historical data to build the repair package and advocate for the funding and fleet ship repair policies that support advance planning, and maintenance to “predict” failure and build it into the plan. In many combat systems and engineering areas there may be no “original” parts, but the ship can keep on steaming. To keep all ships to 50 years would require a paradigm shift in several arenas.
Modernization. Current policy severely restricts modernization within five years of decommissioning. Once a date is set and the ship enters this window, it is tough to dig out. Examples of ships that hit this window include the frigate class (FFGs), patrol crafts (PCs) and mine countermeasure ships (MCMs), and the older guided missile cruisers (CGs) and dock landing ships (LSDs). Moving the date to 50 years now would push these ships out of the five-year window, allowing for full modernization efforts, and perhaps allow these ships to complete their last two deployments in the best condition possible.
Structural Maintenance. When I took the 23-year-old USS San Jacinto (CG-56) into her “midlife” Chief of Naval Operations availability in 2010, there was adequate funding for new combat systems and engineering upgrades, but little to fund structural and tank repairs such as the now-well-known aluminum cracking that manifested itself on deployment. However, with advocacy from the Type Commander and NavSea, and after some scary ship checks in some remote parts of the ship, money was added to repair fuel tanks, radar cooling skids, and other equipment and lessons were rolled into future CG midlife maintenance with good results.
Routine Repairs. There are now more robust assessments and plans in place to conduct condition-based maintenance, for all ships but especially for the CG and LSD hulls that were “mothballed” for several years come, but back to life over the next decade. While there is an age factor built into ship maintenance budgets for general repair, cost probably accelerates after 40 years and should be considered. Older ships cost more to maintain, but still less than building new ones. Current trends in analytics and funding of maintenance backlogs indicate this trend is positive.
Manning. Much has been written about the challenge of meeting manning goals to support a fleet of 355 ships. Current manpower calculations do not support keeping the present number of ships fully manned, much less keeping up with increased ship numbers. Funding for the manpower account has increased to the highest level in years, and many initiatives are in place to improve retention and allow more creative advancement strategies, but keeping a destroyer around with its crew of 300 changes the math when compared to adding an littoral combat ship with a crew of 75. If this plan were adopted, drastic changes to fundamental manpower and manning policies would be necessary, or U.S. sailors would be put at risk.
Spare parts. Obsolescence always is an issue as ships age. If the Navy decides to keep ships for 50 years, it would need to identify unique parts and either start stockpiling them, planning for alternative purchases, or look for innovative solutions such as 3-D printing. Looking ahead could bring such issues to light sooner and allow for cost-saving decisions on future replacement parts before they become obsolete and expensive
As the Navy confronts the challenges of designing and building new ship classes in numbers sufficient to create a knee in the curve toward 355 ships, it should extend the expected service life of its ships to 50 years. By admitting now that such a change is inevitable, the policy changes could be set in motion and a realistic plan commenced to get to—and stay at—355 ships.
Captain Cordle retired from the Navy in 2013 after 30 years of service. His active-duty assignments included director of manpower and personnel for Commander, Naval Surface Force Atlantic, and command of the USS Oscar Austin (DDG-79) and USS San Jacinto (CG-56). He is the 2010 recipient of the U.S. Navy League’s Captain John Paul Jones Award for Inspirational Leadership.