This post has been updated to correct which aircraft carrier is set for an upcoming docking availability.
WASHINGTON NAVY YARD — The Navy has faced massive backlogs of submarine and aircraft carrier maintenance work at its four public shipyards in recent years, at times pushing nearly ten percent of its workload into the next year.
But if 2017 was the year that bow wave of deferred maintenance caught the attention of lawmakers, it was also the year the Navy made great strides in addressing the problem – despite having a ten percent higher than average workload this year, the yards will end the year with about a quarter of the maintenance backlog they began the year with, the Naval Sea Systems Command commander Vice Adm. Tom Moore told USNI News.
2017 had all the markings of a tough year as it approached. The Navy had scheduled 5.4 million man-days of work across the four naval shipyards, above the average workload from 2013 to 2016 of 4.9 million man-days. As much as 400,000 man-days of work on the 2016 schedule were being deferred to 2017, which was pretty consistent with the backlog being carried over from year to year recently. The four yards were still short of their manpower goal of 36,100 workers. And several “problem children” attack submarines were still on the books, in some cases years after they were first brought into a shipyard for the start of a maintenance availability, due to a lack of available workers to complete those jobs.
Despite all those challenges the shipyards had to face this year, they will leave 2017 in better shape than they came in, Moore assured. Less than 100,000 man-days of work will be pushed into 2018. The workforce stands above 34,000 already and will continue to grow closer to the 36,100 target. And four of the “problem children” will complete their availabilities and return to the fleet this year, ending the strain they put on the yards by continually upping the backlog size and lowering on-time completion rates.
In the midst of such an unusual year at the shipyards, Moore sat down with USNI News to explain how the Navy found itself in this situation, how it is digging its way out, and what it means for the aircraft carriers and submarines that are maintained and refueled at these four yards.
Renewed Focus on Work Planning
Moore said the key first step to a successful maintenance availability is proper planning, with a detailed and accurate understanding of what people and material will be needed at each step along the way. For the recent availabilities that most went awry, such as attack submarines USS Albany (SSN-753) and USS Asheville (SSN-758) that will finish their work this year around 570 and 670 days late, respectively, he said it should have been apparent from the start that the plan wouldn’t lead to a successful availability.
“I went back and looked at Asheville and Albany, and they were built with curves where you could tell that they needed this number of people but [the yards] were only able to put this number of people on. So obvious that, if I could rewind history and they were to give me a workload curve like that, I could look at it today and say, you’re not going to be able to do this in 22 months,” he said.
On Asheville, the yard planned for needing 300 to 500 people a day, which Moore said couldn’t possibly keep the work on schedule – but given the shipyard’s overall workload, that was all yard leadership could allot at the time.
“That’s why we’ve started to go look at these people-versus-time schedules. And when we stick to the schedule, we finish on time,” he said.
“if you fall too far behind, it doesn’t matter how many people you throw at it, eventually then it becomes a butts-per-cubic-inch thing; you can only fit so many workers on the ship at any given time, and it’s not a very productive way to do the work.”
Moore has started asking the shipyards to make more of a commitment to those resource plans they submit to NAVSEA. Several months before the availability starts, he said, “I want you to commit to me that you have a resource plan – in other words, these are the people I need, when I’m going to need them, over the six months – and that you are committing to me, if you give me these resources I will finish on time. And I’m making them sign up to say, yes, that plan will work and I have the resources.”
On the carrier side, Moore has been holding weekly 30-minute calls with each shipyard commander to get an update on the carriers’ progress and to find ways to empower the yards to do what it takes to deliver the carrier on-time or early.
“It’s to get a quick update on where they are, where they’re having challenges, and then where can headquarters provide help in terms of, do you need my help in getting material, do you need my help in clearing some technical issues that you need adjudicated before you can get back to testing. So that’s all been helpful,” he said.
“There are things we can do up at headquarters to, if it’s a technical issue I can give them additional technical resources. I can provide them some focused effort from the headquarters; if I have my chief engineer sitting there with me and the shipyard commander brings an issue up, it cuts through the normal layers that these things have to get through. I think it has created – if you listen to the CNO talk about the key ingredients for the future Navy, one of them he first talks about is, time matters, and have a sense of urgency. So again, I don’t want to overstate the importance of those reviews because I’m not about to claim I’m the reason these things have gotten better, but I do think it does provide the shipyard commanders with an additional level of a sense of urgency, that hey, this has got headquarters’ attention; headquarters is here to help me; that if they’ve got a problem that they’re having a problem getting solved, then we can muster some resources to get them solved probably quicker than they can get them solved in the normal way.”
Moore said these focused leadership reviews contributed to delivering USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71) on time in December and keeping USS Harry S Truman (CVN-75) on track today.
That weekly drumbeat currently only takes place for carrier availabilities, but Moore said he plans to add focused leadership reviews for submarine availabilities where it makes sense.
Manning Levels Steadily Rising
Having a solid plan only helps if the yards can actually adhere to it, and in many cases the number of workers at the yards has been an issue. Moore believes the 36,100 public yard workforce will support a “win them all” philosophy for delivering ships on time.
“36,100 is enough to do the work that’s on the books right now. We will have enough of a workforce, given the workload as I know it now between 2022, to also allow me to work off the backlog,” he explained.
“I will stop growing the backlog, which is step one, and then I will start to work that off. So you should expect to start seeing most or all of the availabilities finish on time starting by about ’20. And we’re starting to see that trend right now, the carriers are going first and I think you’ll start to see the SSNs” increase their on-time delivery rates.
For now, while still short of the 36,100 figure, Moore will still have to use other levers, such as increasing overtime, asking the fleet to postpone an availability, or putting some attack subs into Huntington Ingalls Industries’ Newport News Shipbuilding or General Dynamics Electric Boat to be worked on my private industry. But he said he can make the best of the situation until he reaches 36,100 workers and stops adding to the backlog by 2020.
“So what we do in the interim is, if we have backlog, we have to work with the fleet to move availabilities around so that we have the capacity to do the work, for instance like USS Boise (SSN-764); or we have to go back to the private sector and see if they’ve got some capacity, like with Columbus (SSN-762) or Helena (SSN-725) or Montpelier (SSN-765), the three submarines we have planned to do in the private sector,” he explained.
“By the time we get to ’20, we start working that backlog off and we won’t have to do some of the things we’re doing today, and we should be able to just take the [Global Force Management Process] schedule and let the fleet go work, and we would get the work done in the year we were expected to get it done.”
Other Levers To Pull
For the time being, overtime is the biggest lever for Moore to adjust, but he said it can really only fine-tune how many man-days of work get accomplished and cannot compensate for major workforce shortages. The four shipyards rely on overtime for about 12 percent of their work, Moore said, which could be increased a bit more – though the Navy’s focus now is making each employee more productive in the hours he or she puts in.
The Navy has hired executive coaches to work with naval shipyard leadership to help them become better supervisors at the deckplate, Moore said. And initiatives are being put in place to help new hires start contributing to the workload even before they’re qualified to work on the ship.
“We actually can take somebody that just came into the yard and we can train them on some basic stuff – so for instance, we could train an electrician how to tear down and rebuild a circuit breaker; now, they may not be able to go on the ship to work, but if we’re pulling circuit breakers off to be overhauled, we can, earlier than we would have in the past, take our worker and let them do something that’s productive,” he said.
“For instance, we can take a pipefitter, and while they’re not ready to go on the ship and fit pipe and weld it up, they can take pipe in the shop and we can teach them how to bend it properly. So we’re getting more utility out of the workers faster than we were getting it previously, and that’s one of the other things we’re going to need to do.”
NAVSEA headquarters is also working with the four yards to share best practices and reduce the variance in how work gets done across the four locations.
All told, Moore said, “an availability that today might take 250,000 man-days to execute, maybe we do the exact same work for 225,000 because the workers are more productive.”
That increased productivity will be important because the next few years look pretty similar to 2017’s higher-than-average workloads.
Fortunately, sending some work to the private yards should remain an option for the next couple years, until the Navy can start working off its backlog. Moore said that, for now, “we’re watching pretty carefully to see if there’s any other submarine work out there that we may have to consider making available to private sector as a way to balance the workload out. The private sector has made clear to us they’re ready if we’d like to provide them more work.”
USS Montpelier (SSN-765) is at Electric Boat, and Newport News is taking USS Columbus (SSN-762) and USS Helena (SSN-725), with USS Boise (SSN-764) being competed for work in 2019.
With an upcoming boom in new-construction submarine work, though – and the 20-percent-higher price tag for work at private yards – this isn’t a viable long-term solution to addressing maintenance backlogs at the public yards, but it may be good enough to keep work moving along until the public yards have the capacity to sustain themselves.
Moore said NAVSEA and the shipyards will have to make future decisions about sending an attack sub to the private yard much earlier than they have recently. With Boise, which was supposed to go to Norfolk Naval Shipyard in Fiscal Year 2016 and will now wait until FY 2019 for work, Moore admitted “we just waited so long that we kind of ran out of trade space” to do anything other than defer the maintenance availability indefinitely. Talks about how to handle lack of capacity – by either putting a submarine into the private yard or sliding an availability to the right – should be taking place 12 to 18 months ahead of the planning start of maintenance, Moore said, adding that NAVSEA was working hard now to try to avoid another Boise situation.
The Effect on Aircraft Carriers
The last three aircraft carriers have delivered on time from their planned incremental availabilities, and a fourth, USS John C. Stennis (CVN-74) is also tracking on time. But Moore said NAVSEA and the public yards couldn’t declare victory yet on the carrier side.
“Now, they have been the six-month variety, not the docking ones. So [USS George H.W. Bush (CVN-77)] will come in for a docker here in the fall, and then we’ve got on the West Coast USS Nimitz (CVN-68) when she comes back, she’ll be going back in the dock. So I’m pleased with the progress we’re making, the track record on the carrier side of the house has been good this year. In fact, the number of lost operational days on the carrier side is almost zero, and that’s what we want it to be,” he said.
“I think the CVNs are in the box. Again, we’ve got some docking availabilities coming up and those are significantly harder, so we have to prove that we can do the docking availabilities just as well as we do the shorter planned incremental availabilities.”
The Effect on Submarines
The submarine side is where it will become apparent if Moore’s plans – his focus on advanced planning, the growth in the workforce, worker-efficiency initiatives and more – are actually successful.
The admiral said the ballistic-missile submarines (SSBNs) are the Navy’s top priority and almost always deliver back to the fleet on time. The only recent exception is USS Nebraska (SSBN-739), which just finished up sea trials but had been slightly delayed by indigenous razor clams getting into the seawater-side condenser tubes, which had to be cleaned out.
Of the 21 ships in maintenance at naval shipyards now, 11 are on track for on-time delivery – and of the 10 that are not, one is Nebraska, and the other nine are attack submarines.
Four of those nine attack subs have faced continual delays over the past years and are the “problem children” Moore refers to. Those will all wrap up by the end of the year. Five SSNs will be part of the backlog pushed into 2018.
“The SSNs have really been the Achilles’ heel, and that starts with capacity,” Moore said.
“The SSNs is really where I would expect, as we head into Fiscal Year 2018 and ‘19 and ‘20, they are going to be the ones that gain the most benefit of adding capacity at the shipyards.”