Support is growing within the House Armed Services Committee to accelerate Navy efforts to improve ship repair capacity at both private and public shipyards, and for funding that either through ongoing talks about a massive federal infrastructure bill or other means, lawmakers made clear during a Thursday afternoon hearing.
The HASC readiness subcommittee questioned three Navy leaders about ship repair efforts and how to both add capacity and make the existing yards more efficient. The general consensus among lawmakers seemed to be that more progress was needed on a quicker timeline.
The Navy has a plan to overhaul its four yards through a 20-year, $21-billion Shipyard Infrastructure Optimization Program (SIOP), though lawmakers earlier this year asked the Navy to look for ways to speed up the program. The Navy also has a lot of ideas for what it would like to see from private yards, though Naval Sea Systems Command head Vice Adm. Bill Galinis said during the hearing that the current fixed-price contracting strategy the Navy uses would make it difficult for the yards to finance large capital expenditure projects on their own.
HASC readiness subcommittee chairman Rep. John Garamendi (D-Calif.) multiple times during the hearing asked the Navy admirals for a detailed five-year plan for public and private yard improvements, partly so that HASC could write some upcoming milestones and associated timelines into this year’s National Defense Authorization Act, and partly so that they could quickly jump on any opportunities to find funding for the items.
“One of the reasons that I’m driving so hard for the five-year – what are we going to do next year and the year after that and the next three years beyond – is, I’ll give you an example: last week, several billion dollars was returned to the Department of Defense for military construction programs” that had been diverted by the Trump administration to cover border security projects, he said.
“To my knowledge, none of that will be available for this particular purpose because none of the programs we’ve been talking about, none of the activities we’ve been talking about here, are yet in the military construction, MILCON, program; they’re not programmed. So I’m going to drive very hard through Adm. Galinis for detail for the next five years so that we can, every year, know what you need” and quickly act if there’s a chance to secure money for any of them outside the annual defense budget process.
Galinis said that, on the SIOP program for the public yards, there was probably some opportunity to accelerate planning efforts if money were made available. By the end of the year, he said, digital twin models of each of the four yards – Norfolk Naval Shipyard in Virginia, Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Maine, Puget Sound Naval Shipyard and Intermediate Maintenance Facility in Washington, and Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard and IMF in Hawaii – would be complete, showing a computer model of the ideal layout of the yard to create the most efficient flow of people and material for ship repair work.
From there, Galinis said, “our ability to get the planning done upfront, which includes the area development plans and talk about the infrastructure, the foundational environments that we want to build these new buildings in, that’s probably a key part there” that could be accelerated.
Rear Adm. Howard Markle, the deputy commander of NAVSEA for logistics, maintenance, and industrial operations (SEA 04), said during the hearing that the actual process of overhauling shops and buildings at the yards may have some opportunity to speed up, but the Navy would have to be careful not to conduct SIOP efforts at the expense of actual ship repair work.
“As you look at the potential for acceleration, there’s obviously two very large constraints that would constrain that: those are funding, and those are the ability to accelerate those and integrate them with the ongoing maintenance, ensuring that we can meet our mission,” he said.
“Opportunities certainly could exist as we continue to study SIOP and perform our analysis on those mega-projects. Clearly we’re focused on the docks up front, you can see that in the previous president’s budget and you will likely see further commitment to that. But as we look to the broader optimization piece and those things that support that, those are certainly areas of opportunity for us to accelerate integrating (yard upgrades) with overall mission execution.”
On the private yard side, Galinis said he has a lot of ideas for how to help industry improve performance, but funding them can be difficult.
The private shipyards today can handle the current workload and are seeing better performance recently after a concerted effort by the Navy and industry to get the fundamentals right: the government awarding contracts early for better planning, both for ordering materials and understanding workforce requirements, and buying government-furnished long lead time materials earlier; and industry investing in workforce training and ensuring they stick to the schedule.
Galinis said the issue is that the fleet is expected to grow, and there’s not enough capacity for the expected future ship maintenance workload. For that, the Navy needs to help invest in and support not only expanding current repair yards and incentivizing new ones to do business with the Navy, but also in supporting smaller companies that focus on specific skillsets and often work as a subcontractor to a repair yard.
Rear Adm. Eric Ver Hage, the director of surface ship maintenance and modernization (SEA 21) at NAVSEA, said during the hearing that “I would like to see a CAPEX-like approach, things focused on training, things focused on maybe dredging or expanding drydock capacity; those things will give us some flexibility and surge capacity, both during normal operations and more kind of emergency situations.”
Rep. Jared Golden (D-Maine) said during the hearing that he viewed these kinds of investments in private yards and industry as both critical infrastructure and national security issues and would like to see them addressed in the upcoming American Jobs Act from the Biden administration, an idea that’s been pitched on the Senate side of the Hill by Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.).
Galinis told Golden that there are plenty of ways this federal money could be used to support private industry in a way that would directly benefit the Navy and lead to increased repair capacity and options.
“There are potential dredging projects that would help in one port; the addition of maybe a ship lift system to better utilize the capacity within the shipyard, maybe another project; I think as Adm. Ver Hage talked about, the development of the workforce is always high on my list anyway in terms of ensuring we have a well-qualified and trained workforce. So those are a couple of projects that we have, kind of shovel-ready type efforts, if you will,” the NAVSEA commander said.
“We certainly get a lot of input form industry as well, and if that opportunity were to present itself, sir, I feel pretty confident we can provide a pretty good, detailed list in relatively short order.”