Navy creating new senior civilian position to manage long-term sustainment

The Navy said Friday it would appoint a new senior-level position to oversee the vast sums of money it spends on weapon systems after they’ve already been acquired and fielded.

The service will stand up the new office of deputy assistant secretary of the Navy for Sustainment on Oct. 1. Officials haven’t yet identified the person who will be hired or promoted to occupy the new job, but he or she is expected to serve as a policy-focused “synchronizer” for the Navy Department’s sprawling maintenance, logistics and supply enterprise.

James Geurts, Navy
James Geurts, the assistant secretary of the Navy for research, development and acquisition

James Geurts, the assistant secretary of the Navy for research, development and acquisition, said the decision to create the new position followed an eight-month review in response to a Congressional directive that told the military services to devote more management attention to sustainment.

“Where there are opportunities or things we need to do here at the secretariat level, this will make sure the sustainment functions throughout the Navy and the Marine Corps have an advocate and can help accelerate those,” he told reporters. “I think what’s particularly encouraging is it will also let us continue to draw the research and development functions, the acquisition functions and the sustainment functions closer together so we can ensure we’re fully leveraging all the things we’re doing in science and technology and R&D to help sustainment, taking lessons learned from sustainment into new construction so that we don’t have handoff issues there.”

The Pentagon’s inspector general has routinely identified weapons system sustainment as among the major acquisition management challenges for not just the Navy, but for the Defense Department writ large. The cost of maintaining and operating large acquisition programs generally makes up more than 70% of a system’s total lifecycle costs, and numerous reviews by the IG and others have found the military services tend not to adequately consider those operating and support functions when they buy a new piece of hardware or software.

Those planning shortfalls tend to not only drive up costs, but also impose delays on the process of, for example, maintaining and repairing Navy vessels. So Geurts said the department had set out on a data-driven approach to better forecast its long-term sustainment needs in ways that attack the root causes of those delays and not just their symptoms.

“Sometimes in a very complex system such as this, there’s a tendency to say, ‘Well, I think if we just put some more resources there it would help,’” he said. “So the other thing we’ve done internally is a thing called Perform-to-Plan, where we kind of forecast forward where we need to get to – with the fleet commanders leading that – and then bringing all the resources of the building, whether it’s financial management or acquisition or operations, and going after the blockers to getting there.”

But officials also said Friday that they’d begun to see marked progress in the area of ship repair – and more money has helped. As part of a plan dig out of serious maintenance backlog, the Navy requested and received an unprecedented $9.7 billion for repairs.

Part of the funding went toward an initiative to grow the depot maintenance workforce begun in 2017. The goal at the time was to increase the rolls of maintainers from 33,850 to 36,100 by fiscal 2020. The Navy actually achieved that target a year early, said Vice Adm. Thomas Moore, the commander of Naval Sea Systems Command.

“In addition to trying to get the capacity of the shipyard up, we’re focused on really trying to get that workforce in and productive faster than we had in the past,” he said. “So we’ve developed what we call learning centers, and right now what we’re seeing is that the average worker, from the time we bring them in the door until the time they’re a productive person we can send out on the deckplate, we’ve cut the time in about half. So even though half my workforce has less than five years of experience, that trend is starting to turn in the right direction.”

Then there’s the matter of the physical state of the Navy’s shipyard infrastructure. A 2017 GAO report found fully 25% of the buildings at the Navy’s four public shipyards were in poor or failing condition, and cited dilapidated conditions as a key reason the maintenance backlog had grown by 41% over just the five previous years.

Moore conceded the yards are by no means modern workplaces in many respects – the Norfolk and Portsmouth yards were built in 1767 and 1800, respectively – but he said the Navy is now making a serious effort to update them to account for 21st century vessels and workflows.

The service issued its first-ever shipyard infrastructure optimization plan in March of last year to deal with some of those challenges.

“The statistic that I always use is that at Norfolk Naval Shipyard, the workforce walks the circumference of the earth every single day getting to and from the job site, which is 6% of the labor hours right there. It’s just a complete waste,” he said. “But we’re making some inroads there.”

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