Leading sailors on a warship at sea takes credibility, influence, tenacity, and a healthy dose of inspiration. Chiefs and officers must mold their sailors into an effective warfighting team while dealing with the constant dangers of life at sea, separation from loved ones, and cramped living accommodations. This leadership challenge receives ample attention in the Navy’s formal and informal professional development processes. However, the operational environment is not the only one with which Navy leaders must contend. There also is the less-glamorous environment of an extended shipyard maintenance period. Leadership training for this environment gets little attention, yet the challenges unique to a major maintenance period are no less important to the overall mission of the Navy.
The Importance of Ownership
Ownership is the mind-set that, despite being in a shipyard, the ship’s crew has the duty and responsibility to know everything going on in their spaces and with their equipment. During a shipyard period, sailors no longer are sleeping, eating, and standing as many watches on the ship, making it easy to fall into the trap of not paying as much attention to what is happening on board. This thinking is dangerous, and it is incumbent on khaki leaders to reinforce over the course of the overhaul that the ship still belongs to the crew. The crew—not the shipyard workers—will be taking her back to sea. No one should care more about keeping the ship clean and getting work done safely and correctly than the crew.
Every major maintenance period goes through three major phases—preparing the ship for work, accomplishing the work, and getting the ship back to sea. Each phase has its own set of challenges.
Preparing the Ship for Work
At the start of a shipyard availability, the crew is engaged in a flurry of activity, as electrical systems are deenergized, fluid systems drained, and major pieces of equipment removed from the ship. A big challenge for leaders is ensuring their sailors accomplish these tasks safely and methodically. Work controls, such as tag-outs and authorization forms, must be carefully written and executed. This is tedious. Proper khaki supervision of sailors on the deck plates is critical and demands a high level of procedural and technical knowledge. Fortitude also is required. Mistakes inevitably will happen and must be corrected, even if it means extra hours or a work delay. No one likes telling a sailor, who has already been on board for a full workday, that the tag-out he or she is required to hang before going on liberty must be redone correctly to prevent injury and equipment damage once work commences.
Capturing the knowledge of experienced individuals to avoid relearning the same lessons is another challenge leaders face during this time. Most major yard periods take place following a deployment. Ships are as fully manned as possible when they depart for deployment, and sailors often are extended on board until the ship has completed its mission and returns to home port. Consequently, ships going into the yards frequently experience a “brain drain,” as experienced sailors finally rotate to their next assignments. It is easy for leaders to become so focused on getting a ship into its maintenance period that they forget to capitalize on the experience of these individuals before they depart. Training briefs, standard operating procedures, and even simple lessons-learned memos are invaluable tools months later, when the maintenance availability is over and the ship is getting ready to go to sea with an almost entirely new crew.
Accomplishing the Work
The crew’s workload tends to taper off somewhat as the shipyard workforce takes over and begins to tackle the bulk of the work. For many crew members, this is the first somewhat relaxed period in the ship’s schedule in a year or more. On top of that, the ship itself is now uninhabitable. With no running water and little to no ventilation, ships can get miserably hot, and simple everyday activities such as making a head call or getting a cup of coffee become arduous. This challenges leaders to keep their sailors engaged, when the human tendency is to put in the minimal effort and leave as early as possible. Leaders will be tempted to “go with the flow” and let sailors off early for a little extra liberty. However, chiefs and officers will better serve their sailors by pushing them to tackle tasks they are usually too busy to accomplish. Schools, training, preservation work, and administrative programs are all examples of things that should get more attention during this time.
Personal qualifications also demand special attention in a shipyard environment. A successful shipyard period is not only about the material readiness of the ship. A perfectly functioning ship is useless without a qualified crew to take her to sea. However, when the ship is not operating, leaders have to find other ways to get sailors the opportunities they need to qualify on watch stations, such as riding other ships or making use of shore-based trainers.
The work phase of an overhaul is also the one in which a drop in “ownership” is both most likely and most dangerous. Sailors have to be motivated to maintain daily interest in the work taking place in their spaces. It is far easier to hold a yard worker accountable for a hygiene or safety issue on the day the issue arises than it is at the end of the availability. Finally, sailors need to be reminded that the abnormal conditions in a shipyard make ships more vulnerable to casualties such as fire and flooding. The loss of the USS Miami (SSN-755) in 2012 and the possible loss of the USS Bonhomme Richard (LHD-6) this year to fire are the most dramatic examples of this vulnerability, but many ships have suffered less catastrophic damage because of a combination of damage control systems not being in a normal lineup and spaces not being fully manned. Leaders must keep up a steady drumbeat on safety and cleanliness, especially in longer availabilities where significant crew turnover results in many sailors joining the ship without the benefit of intensive training before the overhaul.
Getting the Ship Back to Sea
During every overhaul, a threshold is reached where no more new work starts and the focus of ship and shipyard alike turns to finishing the jobs in progress and getting the ship back to sea. At this point, maintaining sailors’ morale and motivation is sorely tested. The crew is again working long hours, and frustration inevitably will grow as the system restoration and retesting process begins in earnest. Some equipment will fail when tested, often resulting in delays and extensions as failed components are reworked and retested, sometimes multiple times. Uncertainty weighs heavily on a crew, especially when it results in missing exciting operational opportunities, such as a Fleet Week port visit or a delay in a planned post-overhaul change of homeport.
Sailors often cope with the stress and frustration they experience at the end of overhauls in unhealthy ways. It is not uncommon to see a spike in dangerous behaviors, such as substance abuse, during this time. In addition to the human cost, losing sailors to medical or disciplinary issues plays havoc with carefully crafted manning plans and makes it more difficult to ensure the ship is ready for sea. Both for the good of their sailors and the good of the ship, leaders must be especially alert for signs their sailors are struggling.
On a positive note, while the end of an overhaul can be the most stressful phase, it also is when a crew can begin to reap the benefits of the hard work of maintaining ownership of the ship throughout the overhaul. Not only will they have helped drive the shipyard to make the ship and its systems ready for testing, but they also will have mentally prepared for the hard work of bringing the ship back to life, and received training value in the process. Sailors should derive immense satisfaction and pride from turning a dead hull back into a lethal fighting ship—excellent inoculations against destructive behaviors.
Shipyard Leadership Challenges in Context
Leading sailors through a shipyard period is a challenging task that is only going to get harder in the foreseeable future. The fleet is trending older and will require more maintenance to keep running.1 Sailors’ efforts in a shipyard period, as thankless and trying as they may sometimes be, are critical, and chiefs and officers must effectively communicate the important role heavy maintenance plays in the long-term health and stability of the fleet. Drawing a direct line between the adversity and uncertainty a crew faces during a shipyard period and the big picture of national strategy provides much-needed context and can inspire the ownership so vital to a successful overhaul.
1. Megan Eckstein, “Heritage Report: Aging Navy Fleet Complicates Tradeoff between Buying New Ships, Fixing Old Ones,” USNI News, 4 October 2018, news.usni.org/2018/10/04/heritage-foundation-index-aging-navy-fleet-complicates-tradeoff-between-spending-on-new-ships-maintaining-old-ones.