The military services are getting more attention from Congress on the conditions of their government-owned maintenance facilities.
Members are concerned that the worsening physical state of the depots are the result of chronic underfunding the Defense budgeting process has failed to address, and the chairman of the House readiness subcommittee now wants the military services to submit detailed, near-term plans on what they’re doing to fix the problem.
The most recent comprehensive review of the department’s organic depots, conducted by the Government Accountability Office in 2019, found 12 out of 21 were in “poor” condition, based on DoD’s own facility rating criteria. Only four of the overall facilities’ overall state earned a “good” grade.
And on the inside, the equipment that workers use to repair ships, planes and ground vehicles is showing its age, too: GAO found the average age of that equipment had already exceeded its planned service life at 15 of the 21 locations. The same year GAO issued that report, the military services responded to Congressional demands by preparing 20-year plans to improve facility conditions.
But Rep. John Garamendi (D-Calif.), the readiness subcommittee chairman, said the military services’ budgets since then still haven’t demonstrated a clear commitment to turn things around.
“Attack submarines have sat idle for years because of inadequate shipyard capacity, and public shipyards are in such abysmal condition that the Navy has estimated it will not be able to service the Ford Class aircraft carriers or complete a third of its required maintenance availabilities between now and 2040,” he said during a hearing with the military services’ top acquisition and logistics officials Thursday.
“We’ve got a problem. This committee perceives the problem, and we damn well intend to solve it,” Garamendi said.
It’s far from the first time Congress has expressed concern about the state of DoD’s government-operated ammunition plants, shipyards and air logistics centers. Besides the legislation that required the military services to draw up “infrastructure optimization plans” in 2019, the following year’s defense authorization bill required the Pentagon to deliver a depot investment strategy for DoD as a whole.
But Garamendi said Congress needs to know what the military is doing right now to reverse the trend of worsening facility conditions. He told Defense officials the committee wants to see facility improvement plans that explain their next five years of planned investments within the next 90 days.
“We would like to have that in detail, beginning with what is the first step you must do in any significant improvement to your facilities: the preliminary engineering and environmental reviews. We also need to know the approximate cost and timelines associated with that,” he said. “We intend to be drilling down – some would say we’re going to get into the weeds. This committee is not messing around. We’re going to drive this issue.”
Besides creating the optimization plans, military service officials said they have already started putting more resources toward facility improvements.
By law, at least 6% of the working capital revenue that government depots take in from maintenance activities has to be plowed back into improving and sustaining the facilities themselves. The Army said it exceeded that benchmark in each of the last two fiscal years; similarly, the Air Force said it’s directed $2 billion of those funds toward depot upgrades over the past four years.
The Navy, meanwhile, said it’s taking the problem of deteriorating facilities seriously by creating a dedicated program executive office to oversee improvements under its Shipyard Improvement and Optimization Plan (SIOP).
Jay Stefany, the acting assistant secretary of the Navy for research, development and acquisition, said the approach applies the same level of rigor the military would normally use for a major weapons acquisition program.
“We have a program executive officer to provide that executive oversight – one person that’s accountable to us and accountable to you for making sure the whole program works,” he told the committee. “We have a single person for execution in the Pentagon, and then an executive to make sure it’s all running together and then a program manager to do the day-to-day. There’s lots of other stakeholders, but they don’t get to vote. And then on the requirements and resourcing side, we’ve identified a single three-star [admiral] to be responsible. That’s what we typically do with a major acquisition program as well.”
The Navy estimates the overall SIOP effort will cost $21 billion over 20 years.
But Garamendi said Congress isn’t seeing the seriousness of the issue reflected in DoD’s proposed budgets. The defense authorization bill the House passed for 2022 also demonstrates that concern: for each of the services, the legislation added $900 million above and beyond what the Pentagon requested to modernize depot infrastructure.
He said that and other provisions in House’s version of the 2022 NDAA were meant to address a perception amongst members of Congress that the Defense budgeting process persistently neglects needed facility upgrades in order to pay for other military spending priorities, even when the DoD officials with responsibility for those depots have made internal requests for significantly higher spending levels.
“I know [depot facility funding] will be in the president’s budget, but I also know that budget will be scrubbed and washed and hung out to dry and significantly shrunk below what is needed,” he said. “Given the capabilities of our extraordinary professional staff on both sides of the aisle, we will find a way to know what it is you have proposed, and then we’ll find out what the secretary has actually approved. If those two do not match up to the expectations of the five year program that you’ll develop, [DoD] will hear from us.”