Flattop flip-flop: Repair problems force schedule change-up

By Lance M. Bacon

The flip-flop of two carrier deployments has revealed the Achilles’ heel of the latest deployment plan — designed to make ship schedules more predictable — before it was even able to get started.

The carrier Harry S. Truman will deploy in the fall of 2015, nearly half a year ahead of schedule, as the Navy tries to fix the carrier Dwight D. Eisenhower. The Ike ended a yearlong drydock overhaul in late August, but unforeseen repair work has emerged.

The carrier switch is evidence that recurring issues can unexpectedly sink an Optimized Fleet Response Plan cycle. And those issues are many. Straining op tempo. Chronic crew undermanning. Budget cuts and uncertainty.

The Truman is now tasked with preparing to deploy sooner while the Ike’s later departure from its maintenance will ensure the O-FRP program has a strong start, said Lt. Cmdr. Cate Cook, Fleet Forces Command spokeswoman.

Truman will begin a maintenance period at Norfolk Naval Shipyard in October to ensure the carrier is prepared for its expedited deployment. The avail will be about one-quarter of the 200,000 man-days originally planned, said Rear Adm. Richard Berkey, who heads fleet maintenance for FFC.

The staff of Carrier Strike Group 10, which had been embarked on the Truman, will shift to Ike. The schedule change doesn’t affect other ships or squadrons.

The problems that drove the carrier switch — extended maintenance after years of high deployment pace and smaller crews — also plague other carriers and ships. Two attack submarines are more than six months late in their yard work and two guided missile subs are more than a year late, officials said.

The attack boats are “the lowest priority in the shipyard,” said Vice Adm. William Hilarides, the head of Naval Sea Systems Command. “They are not doing well at all and are significantly late to their schedules.”

Officials acknowledge the hurdles to O-FRP being able to stabilize often-erratic fleet schedules, but say they have confidence long-term in the new plan.

‘Good, not great’

The aging fleet is being pushed hard — harder than designed.

Unexpected problems have compounded. For example:

■ The carrier Lincoln’s catapult water break was so worn it actually twisted — something civilian maintainers with 30 years’ experience had never seen.

■ Tanks and bilges have proved problematic, as well. Some amphibs have not had that inspection in nearly 20 years, and the findings have not been good.

■ The carrier Theodore Roosevelt, which is not scheduled to enter the O-FRP pipeline until 2016, is already having issues with its arresting gear water coolers.

■ Eisenhower, the oldest carrier on the East Coast,had trouble with the shafts, rudders and distilling units. Those repairs will continue into February 2015, said Jeff Cunningham, Norfolk Naval Shipyard spokesman.

■ The cruiser Monterey was supposed to come out of the yard in November and join Ike’s strike group in the spring. Five cracks in the superstructure will keep it in the yard at least until March, and scuttlebutt is it will be there into the summer months.

Availabilities lasting months longer than scheduled throws a wrench in the O-FRP machine, which requires the entire carrier strike group to complete maintenance so the ships can go through workups together.

The Navy often paints a rosy picture for overhaul schedules. But the fleet needs work, and the Navy’s top shipfixer says its time to “deal with the facts” and set realistic goals for overhauls.

“We started avails that were notionally six months long that we knew in our hearts were going to take nine or 10 months,” Hilarides said in an Oct. 6 phone interview. He recalled telling fleet bosses that many 2014 overhauls were going to be late. They did not like the news, and understandably. The fleet’s tasking is high and ships are needed afloat.

On top of this, heavy sequestration budget cuts have caused severe drops in yard capacity, from which the Navy is still healing.

Hilarides’ team uses data collection and preparatory inspections to estimate maintenance needed and the time it will take. He says more needs to be done.

“We’ve done good, not great” in recent estimations because there was less flexibility in fleet schedules, Hilarides said, adding that he expects predictions to be more accurate starting in 2016.

There is also a concerted effort to trim what one official called “an unreal number of inspections” scattered across the so-called readiness cycle: 466 inspections and certifications for a carrier strike group.

“If O-FRP delivers, I will get my maintenance started when I say I need it to start so the ship can finish on time,” Hilarides said. “I can already see that trend line starting to fall in.”

Even so, Hilarides warns that it’s hard to sync up an entire strike group’s maintenance completion. A battle group’s ships “tend to be from the same homeport, and if all the ships line up to the same delivery date, that’s just not possible,” he said.

Remanning the fleet

Fixing the ship is only half the battle. Keeping it fixed is key — and that’s continued to be a challenge for a fleet missing thousands of sailors.

Navy officials estimate that 40 percent of preventative maintenance work is not getting done, or is not done right. Not following procedures is also a growing problem, especially in the surface Navy, and has caused more than $50 million in damages this year alone.

Hilarides places much of the blame on the failed “optimal manning” initiative, which the Navy moved to reverse by adding back ship billets in 2011 after years of cuts that hollowed crews. Personnel officials still estimate the fleet has 7,000 gapped jobs.

The course change will take time. Officials have tried to take some strain off ship crews by restarting regional maintenance centers and filling fleet gaps. This often means last-minute cross-decking of sailors to ensure deploying ships have enough trained crewmembers. All this has had deep manpower impacts, many of which were identified by a 2010 fleet review panel.

“If there is one thing I’ve learned, we shouldn’t take this apart again,” Hilarides said. “We should rebuild it and keep it strong. This is part of the cost of running a world-class Navy.”

Some cultural changes are needed. For example, the Navy will need to rely more on “Departure From Specification” reports, which Hilarides sees as a lien against the ship’s availabilities.

Deployment affects

Officials remain confident that maintenance obstacles will be worked out and O-FRP will solidify ship schedules. The plan also promises to boost dwell time from 50 percent to 68 percent during each cycle. Of course, adversaries and crises will have some say in that.

Carriers will start the plan, ship by ship, over the next four years, starting with the Ike. The Bush and Carl Vinson will start in 2015; the Truman, Theodore Roosevelt and Gerald R. Ford in 2016; the Lincoln and John C. Stennis in 2017; and the Nimitz in 2018.

The fifth revision since the 2003 Fleet Response Plan, O-FRP has been in development for more than a year.

The new 36-month cycle starts with a maintenance period followed by a three-month basic training phase, a three-month integrated advanced training phase, 30 days of pre-overseas movement leave, then an eight-month deployment. The remainder of time is known as a sustainment phase, when the ship will keep up its readiness in case it’s called upon.

The design is such that the Navy can order a six-month cruise followed by six months at home and then another six-month cruise without triggering a waiver from the defense secretary.

The ship in the 14-month sustainment period is the likely go-to if a carrier needs to be surge-deployed, said Rear Adm. Troy Shoemaker, head of Naval Air Force Atlantic.

“An eight-month deployment is about the length when you start to see the morale issues kick in,” said Shoemaker, who has commanded the Stennis and Lincoln carrier strike groups. “The last option is to extend the carrier that is already out there unless it is a finite period of a couple of weeks. If it is something that is open-ended, then we would look at those other options.”

Shoemaker warned that budget problems, including the deep sequestration cuts set to kick in October 2015 unless lawmakers intervene, will deplete the fleet’s ability to surge with the cuts coming to ships in the sustainment period, when money is needed to keep them operating at high levels.

That in turn could mean longer deployments and a two-tiered fleet divided between manned and trained ships — and everyone else.

“If you have gotten rid of sustainment and the ability to surge early, it is going to be a challenging time,” Shoemaker said.

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