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Ship repair delays increased in 2022 due to labor, material challenges

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VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. — More ship maintenance availabilities are running long this year due largely to labor challenges and material issues, the fleet maintenance officer for U.S. Fleet Forces Command said Tuesday.

This comes despite a pair of Navy-run efforts to tackle barriers to on-time maintenance.

Rear Adm. Bill Greene said the service currently has 41 surface ships in a major maintenance period, with more than 100 additional in planning.

“For surface ships, we expect to finish 36% on time in [fiscal 2022], there’s just a few days left in the year. And this is versus 44% for last year. So we are going in the wrong direction with regard to on-time delivery,” the admiral said at the American Society of Naval Engineers’ annual Fleet Maintenance and Modernization Symposium.

However, he said, the ships coming out of maintenance late have lost fewer days of operational time. “The cumulative days of maintenance delay, which we also track, have consistently gone down,” Greene said. “In FY20, an 18% reduction, and in ‘21, an 8% reduction. So we are, in a way to say, less late on those late deliveries.”

Greene cited record attrition and said the shipyards are well behind in their hiring plans.

At the Navy’s four public naval shipyards, the workforce is about 1,000 people short, a trend that will continue into FY23.

Although Greene couldn’t provide exact data on private repair yards, which perform maintenance on surface ships, he did say he’s been told all the companies are facing the same shortages: specially skilled trade workers, engineers and IT technicians.

He called this a “national crisis,” saying that car-builders and other manufacturers across the country can’t find enough people to fill these jobs and keep up with workload.

Greene told Defense News that on-time rates would likely be much worse if not for the Navy’s Performance to Plan and Naval Sustainment System-Shipyards efforts, which empower workers to identify barriers to success, move problems up the chain of command for faster resolution, and streamline and clarify who is responsible for outcomes.

At both the private and public shipyards, “we have really faced some unprecedented headwinds in the past few years, and so I think if we weren’t doing P2P and NSS we would be in a lot worse shape,” Greene said.

“It is difficult to sit there and be working so hard on something and not really see the needle moving in the right direction,” he added. But despite labor issues and delays brought on by the pandemic, “we saw the Navy continue to operate. We weren’t tying ships up against the pier, we were continuing to be forward deployed and doing our mission.”

The admiral also noted that materials are taking longer to show up to yards, and that a single missing part can delay an entire maintenance availability. He said this is becoming more problematic during the Navy’s continuous maintenance availabilities, or smaller pier-side work periods outside of a major maintenance availability. When these continuous maintenance availabilities can’t be completed in full due to missing material, that work then gets bumped to the ship’s next yard period, which adds more pressure to that schedule and makes the ship more likely to face delays.

Greene also said big modernization packages often run over schedule — the Navy’s cruiser modernization program accounts for about 1,800 of the total 4,200 delay days right now — and the destroyer fleet is getting ready for a modernization program that could be prone to delays as well.

Sometimes delays stem from drawings coming in late, and sometimes from difficulties with IT integration and testing of more complex ship systems. Regardless, more work is getting pushed to the last weeks and months of modernization periods, making it easy for ships’ availability to run long. Greene called on industry to think of innovative ideas for kitting material, sequencing work in new ways, or other solutions to help keep availabilities shorter in general, and especially to help them stick to their planned schedule.

And the Navy is trying to help industry by providing a stable, predictable workload. Naval Sea Systems Command has started issuing some contract bundles for multiple ship availabilities to help companies better plan their resources, and Greene said that could happen more.

A big barrier to predictable workloads, Greene said, has concerned the decommissioning schedule of ships. Ideally, he explained, the Navy would know two years out when it would decommission a ship and could therefore stop planning to set aside maintenance dollars for that ship.

Though the Navy does plan decommissionings on that timeline, Congress in recent years has accused the service of too quickly decommissioning older ships and shrinking the fleet. Lawmakers have enacted legislation forcing the Navy to keep some of these vessels, including cruisers, amphibious ships and littoral combat ships.

When this happens, Greene said, there’s no money in the budget for the next year or two for that ship, and the shipyards don’t have room at the yards or available personnel to perform any work on the boats. Greene told Defense News these ships can fall years behind on their maintenance and modernization needs, creating a real detriment to their readiness level as an individual ship as well as a backup of required maintenance work for the ship repair companies to manage.

Megan Eckstein is the naval warfare reporter at Defense News. She has covered military news since 2009, with a focus on U.S. Navy and Marine Corps operations, acquisition programs and budgets. She has reported from four geographic fleets and is happiest when she’s filing stories from a ship. Megan is a University of Maryland alumna.

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