Navy vessels spending too much time in maintenance says GAO

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It doesn’t matter how big the Navy’s fleet is on paper if ships and submarines spend too much time in maintenance and repair docks. But that’s exactly what they’re doing. Thanks to change orders from the Navy and problems with shipyard performance, vessels tend to spend months and months longer in repair than they’re supposed to. Federal Drive with Tom Temin got the latest analysis from the Director of Defense Capabilities and Management Issues at the Government Accountability Office Diana Maurer.

Interview transcript:

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Tom Temin: Mrs. Mauer, good to have you back. It seems like we were just through talking about the F-35. And its maintenance problems. And now the decks that it’s supposed to land on themselves, 75% of repairs took longer than they should. Tell us more.

Diana Maurer: Absolutely. It’s great to be back on the show again, Tom. And we just issued a report a couple weeks back that looked at the Navy’s track record. We focused on the nuclear powered Navy, so aircraft carriers and submarines. We looked at a five year period, very robust data set. And you’re absolutely right, 75% of the time, submarines and aircraft carriers were late. And we’re not talking late by a little bit. When aircraft carriers were late, they were late on average about four months. And when submarines were late, they were late on average by more than seven months. These are extended periods of time.

Tom Temin: Those periods of time — six, seven months — those are practically half as long as deployments themselves too.

Diana Maurer: Absolutely By comparison, when the maintenance period runs long on a submarine, it means it can’t perform its operational mission. It can’t perform training. But it also creates a traffic jam, right, because there are other submarines waiting to go into the dry docks, waiting to go into the shipyards for repair. The Navy has a very elaborate plan because it needs to, and when something is late, it has downstream effects. So it’s not just the one submarine if it’s late, it has implications for all the subs that are supposed to be coming later.

Tom Temin: And you mentioned two main causes for this. One of them is that they are change orders or the unplanned work which is added as they go. That’s a little easier to understand than shipyard workforce and performance and capacity. So let’s talk about the Navy’s role in delaying this. What kind of work do they add — like, well why don’t you put in a better bread making mixer while you’re at — it or that kind of thing?

Diana Maurer: So what ends up happening is the Navy starts planning two and a half years in advance for the things that it wants to fix on the submarines and aircraft carriers. And that’s updated over a period of time. But essentially, it’s a list of things that need to be fixed. And it’s sort of like the scheduled maintenance on your car, right, you’re going to go and you want to pick it into the shop, you want to get the transmission fixed, you want new tires, and you want a little bit of work done on the engine. Navy does the same thing. Unplanned work occurs when the Navy starts trying to fix the things on the aircraft carrier or the subs and they find other things also need to be fixed, things that they had not anticipated. That creates additional work, but it takes more time

Tom Temin: And the shipyard workforce and performance capacity, tgat seems to be a little bit more troubling in some sense.

Diana Maurer: Yeah, exactly. So we found that, among other things, there were concerns about not having enough workers to do the work. So there are instances where maintenance was delayed because there literally weren’t enough people to do the work. There were also problems at times with the quality of the work being performed to try to compensate for these workforce issues. One of the things the Navy is doing is relying excessively on overtime, right, that’s built into their planning process. They plan for a certain level of overtime that’s appropriate. We found that the Navy was consistently working the shipyard workers well in excess of these levels. It happened every year at every public shipyard we looked at as part of our review,

Tom Temin: When the Navy finds things in dry dock or undock for repair that it didn’t anticipate and that causes delays and more overtime, what is it they don’t know about their own vessels that is showing up only after say the lid isso to speak is taken off and they start diving into the recesses on these planned maintenances?

Diana Maurer: Part of the issue is that a number of factors go into it. One is that while submarines and aircraft carriers are on deployment, the crews are supposed to be devoting time to periodic ongoing maintenance. For a variety of reasons that isn’t happening as frequently as it should. They have operational responsibilities. Sometimes their deployments are extended, so it puts additional wear and tear on both of the systems. That’s also a factor. You got to understand these are systems that have been heavily used for the last couple of decades, if not longer, there’s a lot of wear and tear. A third factor with submarines in particular is submarine is basically a long tube. So one of the ways that it was explained to us during one of our team site visits, it’s like fixing a submarine is like fixing the engine on your car through the glove compartment. So if you find something unexpected, it has a tremendous ripple effect for all the other things you’re trying to do.

Tom Temin: I guess the submarines are like a lot of products, they’re designed to be put together, but not necessarily to be maintained when you go open the hatches.

Diana Maurer: Exactly.

Tom Temin: So what were your recommendations? Can anything be done about this? I mean, they’ve got the subs they’ve got, there’s new ones under construction, but those I imagine have the same potential issues.

Diana Maurer: Right. So the Navy leadership has paying greater attention and putting greater focus on this as an issue, which is very encouraging. There’s greater congressional focus and attention, which is fantastic. In this report, we made three recommendations. One is that the Navy should take a look at this extensive use of overtime. See if there are ways to either make it use less frequently, or take a look at their workload planning factors, something is probably not being planned properly if they have to consistently rely on overtime. The overtime was one. The Navy has an ongoing initiative to examine the root causes of why things are consistently late in those performance plan. We recommended that they complete work on the measures that they’re doing to make sure that they’re achieving success. That’s the second recommendation. And the third is that we think the best performance plan effort should be plugged in to a broader effort that includes higher level goals, as well as continued leadership attention. They do these three things, we think they’ll be in better position to turn these things around in a timely way.

Tom Temin: And do you feel that there could be long term, better ways of designing ships or maybe, and submarines so that they are easier to maintain, could that be part of it?

Diana Maurer: That certainly is part of it. We issued a report earlier this year that looked at, frankly, a number of cases where the Navy did not pay sufficient attention to the future sustainment needs, how to fix things while they were building new systems. And so as you’re building new things, there’s a tendency to focus on let’s add the new technology, let’s try to figure out ways to cut costs. They’re not thinking sufficiently about how we’re going to maintain and sustain this 20-30-40-50 years down the road.

Tom Temin: Yeah, because you mentioned that the yards say and the Navy says it’s like fixing the engine through the glove compartment. But cars have a thing called a hood in front, so it’s easier to get in there. So maybe the equivalent of the hood on the submarine could be designed in when they when they first lay the keels and decide what these things are gonna look like.

Diana Maurer: Right. That’s something they can certainly think about. With a submarine that’s especially challenging, because they’re operating hundreds of people below the water. So there are technical limitations on how much of a hood you can have on a sub. But there’s certainly things I can do to help have informed decisions about sustainment while they’re building it brand new.

Tom Temin: And finally did you explore or has the Navy ever explored maybe more frequent but shorter maintenance, such that every time they return, there’s a little something done so that they don’t have these big 6-7-8-9 month in dock situations in the first place?

Diana Maurer: Yeah, that is a great point. There are different kinds of maintenance that are done on aircraft carriers and submarines during their lifecycle. We are going to be soon starting review looking at exactly what you were just talking about Tom, which is sort of intermediate level maintenance. How is that being conducted? Is it being conducted appropriately? That’s certainly a bigger part of the overall to address this problem. But the bottom line really is, it’s taken the Navy many years to get in the situation. And unfortunately, it’s going to take them some time to get themselves out. There’s attention and there’s focus that needs to continue for them to be able to turn these these large, important systems around on time.

Tom Temin: Diana Maurer is director of defense capabilities and management issues at the Government Accountability Office. As always, thanks so much.

Diana Maurer: Thank you very much Tom.

Read more from GAO on the topic here.