Navy considers how to repair multiple battle-damaged ships simultaneously

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More than 75 years have passed since the Navy has had to repair several battle-damaged ships all at once. Now naval planners are wondering whether this capability might be needed once again. But the way they’re going about planning it is operating without a compass. Federal Drive with Tom Temin got more information from the Director of Defense Capabilities and Management Issues at the Government Accountability Office, Diana Maurer.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: Ms. Mauer, good to have you back.

Diana Maurer: It’s great to be back on the show, Tom. Thank you.

Tom Temin: So the Navy is thinking about this because they are worried there might be a shooting naval situation with China basically – correct?

Diana Maurer: That’s right. Over the last few years, the Navy and actually the US military writ large has been focusing a lot more of its planning and training, and acquisition and sustainment efforts, to think about something that really had been unthinkable until recently, which is great power conflict, potentially with China or Russia for that matter. And battle damage repair is part of what the Navy in particular has been focused on.

Tom Temin: And they did have two destroyers that were in a sad state of disrepair at once, in recent years, because of the collisions in the 7th Fleet. And so they had that repair too at once. And that was a heavy lift, no pun intended for them to do. So they’re thinking about now, if they had repair 5, 6, 7 ships at once. What is the capacity at this point in the nation for that kind of work? Do we know?

Diana Maurer: We have a sense from some of our prior work here at GAO at that capacity, frankly, is limited. We’ve issued reports over the last couple of years that show that the Navy has struggled with just doing regular planned maintenance. For example, we reported last year that over the course of the last seven years, the Navy has been losing on average the equivalent of 15 ships every single year simply because it can’t perform its maintenance on time and the durations that is planned. And that’s during a time of relative peace time. So that raised a lot of questions in our mind about the Navy’s ability to do repairs on a number of ships. At the same time, were all significantly damaged as a result of conflict.

Tom Temin: Yeah, so it’s an issue of yard capacity. And what about technical expertise in the supply base, even if they had the yard space to pull damaged ships into?

Diana Maurer: It’s certainly a function of all those things. In our look at regular ship maintenance, we found that there are a limited number of dry docks, for example, that the US has available to do planned maintenance. But Navy does not have as many spare parts as it used to have, there are some workforce challenges and then a number of their key experts in ship repair as either retired, or are retirement eligible. So those are all things that challenge your ability to repair just based on the current operational tempo. When we move into thinking about the unthinkable, which is high end conflict with China or Russia, it’s not clear whether those capabilities will be sufficient to meet what the Navy would need in the event of a conflict.

Tom Temin: And your report is also looking at their methodology or the way they are going about even thinking about planning for it. I say that deliberately. They’re not planning for directly their sounds like they’re thinking about how to plan for it. And that is not all jelled – is it – the whole process of thinking about the plan?

Diana Maurer: Right. You’re absolutely right. So picture the Navy and the rest of the US military appropriately so spends a lot of time planning and thinking about and being ready for all different kinds of scenarios that we all hope will never come to pass. So I think that’s sort of the the bold, underline and all this like no one wants us maybe to go to war with the Chinese navy, or the Russian Navy. But if that does happen, they need to be ready. And so one of the challenges that we found was that there are eight different organizations within the US Navy, undertaking 15 different studies, reviews, assessments, what have you, looking at how they can improve their battle damage repair capabilities, and so was spread across the Navy, and we thought that there was a need for greater strategic coherence.

Tom Temin: Yeah, it’s like when they have a bunch of children in the swimming pool. If everybody’s watching, nobody’s watching is the old saying. We’re speaking with Diana Maurer director of defense capabilities and management issues at the Government Accountability Office. And you’ve made a couple of recommendations, three recommendations, basically, to tell them to get their planning effort organized. Just review those for us quickly.

Diana Maurer: Yes, sure. So first, we recommended that the Navy put someone clearly in charge of this. As I mentioned, there are eight different organizations 15 different efforts, we think someone should be looking holistically across efforts to make sure that they’re all adding up collectively into what the Navy needs. Secondly, we think it’s important for the Navy to write down who would be in charge of making decisions about battle damage repair in the event of a conflict that’s not currently specifically spelled out. And for those first two recommendations, there are a number of officials we talked to within the Navy, who had done studies and reviews saying that this was some Another Navy needed. Our third recommendation. It’s a little more wonky, but it has to do with how the Navy models battle damage against existing ships in existing fleet ships change. They’re modified, they’re upgraded after they are built. The Navy’s battle damage models that they use in wargames and other things are not being updated and changed in parallel with those upgrades. And we think that is really important for the Navy’s planning efforts. So we think all three of these recommendations are constructive and helpful to the Navy be ready for the unthinkable.

Tom Temin: And repairing a ship that is battle damage – this is not a pitstop, where they bing bang, boom, it’s in there a couple weeks and turns around and goes out. It can take years correct – to really repair a ship that’s damaged by some kinetic force.

Diana Maurer: Absolutely. One of the things that was working on this report to talk about as we were doing the work was that far too many people have watched far too many documentaries about World War II, right? And their stories like USS Yorktown – turn it around, and they fixed it and got it back out into sea in three days. Well, modern 21st century naval systems, cruisers, destroyers, aircraft carriers are highly sophisticated weapons systems. Battle damage is going to involve lots of people, lots of money, and lots of time. And so it’s important that the Navy think about it have a clear structure in place with strategic oversight and have clear guidance for command and control in the event of a conflict.

Tom Temin: I mean, it takes them six months to rewire one ship with new new networking cable, let alone actually preparing it. And what was the Navy’s reaction here?

Diana Maurer: Well, it was a little bit mixed. They agreed with the substantive direction of all of our recommendations, they agreed that someone should be in charge, they agreed that there should be clear command and control responsibilities and agreed that there’s this should be updating thorough assessments of what what happened in case the ships were damaged. Their view was that one, every one of the Navy circuit understands who’s in charge to that it didn’t need to be written down, and three that they were in the process of updating these things. We didn’t see that we thought our recommendations are important. We think it is important to write down command and control. We think it is important to formally designate who is in charge, and we do think it’s important for them to formally and more frequently update these battle damage simulations as you will as one way to put it for the different weapon systems. So we stand by our recommendations, we hope that the Navy fully implements them.

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

Diana Maurer: Thank you very much Tom.

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