Sammies finalist leading major overhaul of Navy aircraft carrier

A $5 billion overhaul of one of the Navy's aircraft carriers is going better than anyone expected thanks to the (relatively) young assistant program manager lea...

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A $5 billion overhaul of one of the Navy’s aircraft carriers is going better than anyone expected. That’s thanks to the young assistant program manager who’s leading the project. Now he’s a finalist in this year’s Service to America Medals program. Mark Andrew Braza joined Federal Drive with Tom Temin.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: Mr. Braza, good to have you on.

Mark Andrew Braza: Hey, thanks, Tom. Thanks for having me on and allowing me to talk about the accomplishment I’m nominated for.

Tom Temin: Yes and the materials describing what you’ve done emphasize your relative youth and inexperience at the age of 32. Your title is Assistant Program Manager. How did you come to be in charge of something so massive as the contracting and oversight activity related to rebuilding? This would be the USS John Stennis, correct?

Mark Andrew Braza: That is correct. The Navy’s mission has been something that’s always been important to me. I’ve had members of my family in the military, including the Navy. I considered going to the Naval Academy at some point in my life due to some issues with my eyesight and not being able to become a pilot. I decided to go a different path. But ultimately, whenever I graduated from college, this opportunity came up to become a civilian with the Navy. And I jumped at that. It sounded very interesting through an engineering program. So I had an opportunity to work on a variety of submarines and aircraft carriers very early on in an engineering capacity. And the Navy provides a incredible opportunity to get involved with large programs and give tremendous responsibility even early on in the career. So just my career path through the engineering field brought me to slowly progress and be able to take on this role.

Tom Temin: And I imagine as an engineer or someone who studied engineering, dealing with things like submarines and ships must be a dream compared to say, dealing with, I don’t know, municipal sewers or something like that.

Mark Andrew Braza: In my opinion, yes. Although I’m sure sewers have their own benefits to that line of work. I’ve had the opportunity to land on an aircraft carrier and go into the bowels of the ship. That is something that you just can’t get in other areas of the professional world.

Tom Temin: Sure. And of course, there’s also a lot of plumbing on ships and submarines too, I guess if you like the sewage aspect of it. But getting to the Stennis – now this is a midlife redo of the ship and you are responsible for everything but the nuclear power plant on it. So what does that encompass after you back out the power plant?

Mark Andrew Braza: Let me give some quick background and then I’ll dive into that. There are currently 11 commissioned aircraft carriers, and each aircraft carrier has a approximately 50-year life. So about halfway through that 50-year life, we take the opportunity to do this midlife overhaul. So that is a nearly complete overhaul of the living area to make the ship more comfortable and capable for the nearly 5,000 sailors that call that ship home for the next 25 years of that ship’s life. It involves that. We also take the opportunity to modernize the ship. So we will for John C. Stennis that working on right now, making it Joint-Strike-Fighter- and MQ-25-unmanned-aerial-vehicle-capable. We’ll be installing new radars, defensive systems and making this ship ready to go fight the nation’s needs for 25 more years.

Tom Temin: And does it also include, like structural work on the original steel in the hull and the beams and all that inside?

Mark Andrew Braza: It does to some extent. There is still shipping and saltwater. The ocean over amount of time you get some corrosion and items that need repair. We do a complete checkout of the ship and find any of those structural areas that need to be repaired or replaced and we do that during this period.

Tom Temin: Sure. By the way is this done in dry dock?

Mark Andrew Braza: Part of it is, about half of the overhaul is done in dry dock. And then the other half is done at pier side in the water.

Tom Temin: I guess you must buy gray paint by the ton.

Mark Andrew Braza: Haha, tons yes.

Tom Temin: And I guess the other question I had with respect to that is how do you contract for all of this? This is mostly work done by contractors, safe to say, and is that the main challenge that you have is pulling together all the contracting activity?

Mark Andrew Braza: That is a large part of my job, yes. There is a single source for the majority of the work which is Newport News shipbuilding in Newport News, Virginia. But there are many contractors that do work as part of the overhaul. And actually one thing that we’ve been working here recently is to expand the use of small business and small business involvement in overhaul, diversify some of the maintenance providers, diversify the industrial base and suppliers, to supporting the overhauls so that overall Newport News and the industrial base is healthier because of it.

Tom Temin: We’re speaking with Mark Andrew Braza. He’s an assistant program manager in the Navy’s in-service aircraft carriers office, and a finalist in this year’s Service to America Medals program. And the small businesses that you haven’t listed, are they doing high-level work, such as in the radars and electronic communication systems, as opposed to simply supplying the new bunk mattresses and sanding and scraping and painting?

Mark Andrew Braza: Yes, it’s a mixture but they many of them are doing some of the highly technical work. And there are small companies out there that are very specialized in some of these complex pieces of equipment and gear. And we try to use their expertise as much as we can. And Newport News also subcontracts to a lot of those small businesses as well.

Tom Temin: And how long does the whole overhaul intend to take? I mean, how long is it supposed to take and are you on schedule?

Mark Andrew Braza: We are on schedule. And it typically takes about four years to do a complete overhaul.

Tom Temin: Amazing. And the citation says that you’ve been able to save a lot of money, hundreds of millions of dollars.

Mark Andrew Braza: That’s right, using different approach to some of the contracting processes by using small businesses and additional industrial providers has been able to save some money. We’ve been able to use data to better define our work packages and cut out any waste or non-value-added work based off of lessons learned. And that’s been able to save a tremendous amount as well.

Tom Temin: Got it and what about the uniforms? Do they come around and kind of check over what’s going on and all this basically civilian and contractor operation? That is to say the people that are going to, as you mentioned, live on this thing and operate it?

Mark Andrew Braza: Absolutely. There’s a tremendous amount of civilian government and sailors or ships force involvement in the overhaul. Early on, ships force and – or the sailors do some of the maintenance and overhaul themselves that where they have proficiency in particular areas. And then later on in the overhaul, they take on the role of the testing of all the equipment and weapon systems as they come online and get ready to become a fighting chip again.

Tom Temin: And you are a young guy and a civilian and, at parties – if we ever have those again, and gatherings – your work is so out of band of what most people your age do and the level of responsibility they have. What’s that feel like?

Mark Andrew Braza: Ah, it … sometimes incredible, sometimes overwhelming. Knowing the responsibility that I have and the impact that this project has on so many people’s lives – sailors, civilians, contractors. It is a lot of responsibility. I do have a lot of assistance and a great team with great expertise that we work all in unison to help make it happen. But I wouldn’t be telling you the truth if I said I slept peacefully every night. Some nights I do not get a great night’s sleep but that’s only because I am so passionate about this and and want everything to go as successfully as it can.

Tom Temin: And just out of curiosity, your title is Assistant Program Manager. What the heck does the program manager do?

Mark Andrew Braza: Haha – more responsibility. The program manager for in-service aircraft carriers is responsible for all modernization and overhauls for the in-service Nimitz class and soon to be board class ships.

Tom Temin: I guess they’re waiting for that one to launch, right?

Mark Andrew Braza: The CBN 78 USS Gerald Ford has already launched. It is commissioned, and is undergoing some trials and preps for being fully out in performing missions. That ship is going along great and CVN 79, the Kennedy, is under construction as we speak.

Tom Temin: All right, so it’s one years old. Let’s say the Ford, you’re 32, add 25 – you may see the Ford again.

Mark Andrew Braza: Very well may, yeah. For the end of my career, I may be given the opportunity to overhaul the Ford, which would be tremendous.

Tom Temin: Mark Andrew Braza is Assistant Program Manager in the Navy’s in service aircraft carriers office and a finalist in this year’s Service to America MeDals program. Thanks so much for joining me.

Mark Andrew Braza: Thank you, Tom. Really appreciate it.

Tom Temin: We’ll post this interview along with a link to more information at Hear the Federal drive on demand. Subscribe at Apple Podcasts or Podcastone.

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