Surface ship repair maintenance is not ready to meet the demands a high-end conflict would place on it in the coming decade. U.S. Navy surface ships exit a repair period on time less than 50 percent of the time fleetwide, even with recent improvements in maintenance timelines.1 Since 2018, the surface navy has enjoyed increased efficiency with integrated production schedules and a tighter relationship between industry and the Navy. There are still, however, more improvements to be made.
While there is plenty of advice and debate on how to improve ship maintenance, what should not be up for discussion is that the solution should be multifaceted. What is often avoided but should be considered is the role culture needs to play in correcting the systemic issues that have plagued the surface repair maintenance community for too long. A revamped culture, rich in honesty, historical heritage, and accountability, should be a part of a multilayered approach to prepare the maintenance community for a great power war.
Culture plays a crucial role in any organization’s direction. It is a foundation of desirable traits and core beliefs to guide present and future decisions by individuals and suborganizations. From the perspective of many leaders in the surface warfare community, the culture within the repair maintenance domain allows missed timelines and budgets and is unconcerned as to when a ship is needed back in the fleet based on the Optimized Fleet Response Plan. This needs to change.
Truth in Reporting
The surface repair maintenance culture must embody honest and timely reporting, even if this means reporting bad news. As a career surface warfare officer, and especially during my time in command, I have heard multiple times that missed deadlines or milestones must be carefully messaged to mitigate the risk of either the lead maintenance activity forfeiting awards or contractors “taking their foot off of the pedal.” In other words, releasing negative news about the schedule too soon may have adverse consequences for the overall performance of the lead maintenance activity.
There are two problems with this mindset. First, in my experience, being secretive about delays has never motivated a maintenance team to meet a milestone. Problem number two, and most significant, is that hiding delays in the schedule erodes trust among the ship, Navy leaders, and the maintenance activity.
In the spirit of former Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Michael Gilday’s mandate to get real and get better, the maintenance community should “embrace the red”—accept unfavorable reports on the status of a program or process as soon as possible. Bad news does not get better with time. Truthful and timely reporting of missed milestones may risk the lead maintenance activity missing an award tied to a milestone or slackening its effort. However, two key benefits outweigh these risks:
• Truthful and timely reporting builds team cohesion. Successful organizations use brutal honesty and transparency to maintain strong teamwork. Daniel Coyle, author of The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups, explains that vulnerability is one of the core attributes embedded in the cultures of highly successful organizations.2 Vulnerability both precedes and sustains trust. When the lead maintenance activity or shipyard openly admits there is a possibility of missing a deadline, and it is done early enough to be corrected, there will be a higher chance the team—both civilian and military—will respond to meet the deadline. Maintenance community leaders could elevate these concerns and fight their way to resolution. Honesty, transparency, and vulnerability improve teamwork. Concealing the truth does the opposite.
• Prompt and truthful reporting spawn ingenuity to improve timelines and meet milestones. For instance, suppose a maintenance milestone such as an engineering light-off assessment date is unlikely to be met on time, and the entire maintenance community is aware of this potential delay (e.g., when the delay in a part’s arrival is known). In that case, all parties can think of creative ways to mitigate the time loss. Truthfulness and vulnerability do not guarantee ingenuity; however, the propensity for creativity is greater when everyone accepts that a milestone is in jeopardy.
Making a culture change is easier said than done. Unfortunately, inside all military services is the temptation to, at times, falsely report meeting standards or stretch the truth to meet increasing demands and pressures.3 This challenge makes honesty difficult, but it should not be an excuse for not having an open and honest dialogue when shortfalls arise.
The Importance of Historical Heritage
The Navy maintenance culture must be infused with history and warfighting relevance. As an anecdote, the service can look at the World War II success of Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard. This shipyard was thrust in the spotlight preceding the Battle of Midway in May 1942. The USS Yorktown (CV-5) took considerable damage during the Battle of the Coral Sea. Six compartments were destroyed, as were various electrical systems on three decks and across 24 frames. She had lost her radar and refrigeration system, and near misses by eight bombs had opened seams in her hull and ruptured her fuel-oil compartments. Repairs were estimated to require at least 90 days to complete.
Admiral Chester Nimitz, the Pacific Fleet commander, gave the maintenance team 72 hours to repair the ship well enough to put her back to sea for an anticipated battle at Midway—which would prove to be a turning point in the war. On receiving Nimitz’s time frame, the maintenance community got right to work, successfully meeting the deadline with time to spare.
Several factors aided these herculean efforts. First, the country was at war with a bold, relentless adversary. Nimitz waived certain safety measures to speed the process. Second, the only repairs that were addressed were those deemed urgent and necessary to get the ship back to sea and able to launch aircraft. The Yorktown sailed into the Battle of Midway with many repair items left untended. Third, the crew—motivated to get their ship back in the fight—helped the maintenance team make necessary repairs.
These efforts could not be easily replicated today. There are differences in systems (analog versus digital), the environment (wartime versus peace), and safety codes, which contrast the efforts of the Greatest Generation during a massive global conflict with the peacetime efforts our generation can muster today. None of these factors should dilute the maintenance team’s noble accomplishment: The Yorktown was repaired well enough to get back to the fight in less than 72 hours.
The Yorktown story should be told at every shipyard—not just in Pearl Harbor—with patches, ball caps, and other command paraphernalia with the Yorktown’s silhouette in their backgrounds. This impressive accomplishment against unfavorable odds should be an inspirational narrative—one that should serve as an example for every shipyard: a maintenance organization and community that answers the call of the fleet with unflinching resolve.
History is crucial in fostering and supporting a strong organizational culture. For surface warriors, every ship has a story associated with its namesake. Maintenance availabilities should tie in the historical role of the ship’s namesake. Furthermore, the surface ship maintenance community should embrace “wins” throughout history. History that motivates does not need to be in the distant past. For instance, many Pacific Fleet surface warfare officers can recall the success of Vigor Industrial and the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard in the 2010s.4 During this time, two aircraft carrier maintenance availabilities were completed on time or early, and the maintenance community also completed the USS Kidd (DDG-100) availability on time and under budget. The maintenance community should celebrate “wins” in the distant and recent past to inspire a culture of sustained high-level performance.
The third ingredient needed for successful culture is accountability. Consider two opposing examples. In 2017, the surface navy commenced an extensive comprehensive review following two fatal collisions that summer. The community was determined to identify the root causes of its shortfalls and take corresponding corrective actions to prevent the problems that led to the tragic loss of 17 sailors from happening again. As a result, more than 100 immediate corrective actions were identified. Since then, the surface warfare community has enhanced maritime and navigation training across all officer ranks and continues to make strides in this area.
Another example is from my experience as commanding officer of the USS Hopper (DDG-70). Before we entered our extended availability in June 2018, what was forecast to be a 14-month yard period was altered twice and eventually settled to be 21 months. Roughly 12 months into the maintenance period, the availability was extended yet another six months without my or my squadron commander’s knowledge. In the end, after several more delays, the Hopper exited the maintenance period nearly three years after it started. During my time on board, as the ship missed deadlines and decision points, my pleas for a critical process review to determine a root cause were, for the most part, ignored. Throughout my time in the maintenance period, we conducted just one informal review following a six-week delay in removing the ship’s shafts.
The Hopper’s maintenance team was up against some hurdles. Pier loading was a significant problem—three other ships also were being worked on with large maintenance projects; at the time, Pearl Harbor was designed to have only two surface ships in significant maintenance periods at once. Also, key contractor positions, including welders, were prioritized away from the Hopper, as her maintenance project was deemed able to absorb the schedule risk. However, those obstacles should not have led to almost two additional years to repair and upgrade a destroyer. These delays represent a flawed business practice and should not be accepted as the status quo.
A higher level of critical review of surface ship repair maintenance is one of the keys to breaking this status quo. It is not enough to demand that more ships get delivered out of a CNO availability “on time.” A critical, objective review in the form of an investigative inquiry should be required every time a surface ship does not exit an availability on schedule.
Investigations should not have punishment as their objective, but should focus on discovering inefficiencies in a process and finding ways to improve in a particular area. For example, near-miss critiques, used by the nuclear officer corps—and increasingly used in the surface warfare community—are a good model for accountability for shortfalls or inefficiencies without reprimand, reprisal, or blame. The maintenance community should use something similar whenever a milestone is missed or when a ship does not exit an availability on time. Mediocrity and failure should no longer be rewarded with complicit silence.
While blame or punishment does not need to be the center of the solution, holding key leaders accountable for a ship’s maintenance schedule would prove helpful. As a career surface warfare officer, I never knew the key person, or people, who would be held accountable for keeping my ships’ maintenance availabilities on time and on budget.
However, as a commanding officer, I was aware of the key players in the Hopper’s availability: the Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard commanding officer and project manager; the surface maintenance lead; the BAE lead manager; my commodore; and myself. However, the person who ultimately would be responsible for the availability’s success or failure should have been clarified to all parties. If the Navy wants better accountability, a person or organization should be given the responsibility and commensurate authority to ensure the schedule is on track.
Not Just a Warfighting Readiness Problem
There should be a clear understanding of what is at stake when a surface ship enters an extended availability and becomes delayed. The stakes are not just fleet assets late getting to the fight in times of conflict. There are emotional and psychological impacts on sailors as well.5 Not every sailor wants to be on a ship constantly underway; however, all sailors want to feel relevant and valuable.
When sailors are involved in extended yard periods, they mostly are pulled away from what they were trained to do: maintain and operate their equipment and, in the case of junior officers, learn to drive and fight the ship. When an availability starts for a sailor, what begins as a feeling of relief because of a reduced operational tempo can quickly turn into anxiety, helplessness, and at times disdain, as weeks in the yard turn into months. In the case of half-life or modernization availabilities, months can turn into years. The maintenance community owes it to sailors to do better—because it can.
There is little doubt that sailors, civilians, and contractors at every level will rise to the occasion should conflict require ships to be repaired and returned to battle rapidly. The Navy would be better served, however, with a surface repair community that is organized, motivated, and held accountable to repair ships on time.
Fixing the maintenance culture is not a magic pill or the lone solution. Culture is only one piece of a multipronged approach that will help the maintenance community get real and get better, but the Navy and the nation deserve a surface maintenance community that embraces truth in reporting, historical pride, and unwavering accountability.
1. Megan Eckstein, “Navy Reports Improved Ship Maintenance, But Is Still Falling Short of CNO Goals,” Defense News, 10 January 2022.
2. Daniel Coyle, The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups (New York: Bantam, 2018).
3. Leonard Wong and Stephen J. Gerras, Lying to Ourselves: Dishonesty in the Army Profession (Carlsile, PA: U.S. Army War College Press, 2015).
4. “U.S. Pacific Fleet Commander Recognizes Readiness Restoration Success at PSNS & IMF,” U.S. Fleet Pacific Command, 30 January 2019.
5. Geoff Ziezulewicz, “USS George Washington Suicides Investigation Reveals Systemic Issues,” Navy Times, 20 December 2022.