In early June, the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) published the report "Navy Ships: Timely Actions Needed to Improve Planning and Develop Capabilities for Battle Damage Repair". The authors of the document reviewed the current state of the ship repair system supporting the activities of the Navy, identified its weak points and made recommendations for further development.
The GAO reminds that the combat readiness of the Navy in peacetime and combat effectiveness in conflict conditions directly depend on the ship repair system. At the same time, in recent decades, the repair potential of the United States has decreased. So, since the Second World War, the American Navy has not faced the need for a quick and massive repair of warships. In addition, repair capacity has been severely curtailed since the end of the Cold War.
However, the situation is now changing. China is building a large and powerful ocean-going fleet. The Russian Navy is gradually restoring its capabilities. The 2017 National Security Strategy allows for the possibility of an armed conflict with these countries - and in this case, the US Navy will face the risk of damage or loss of ships, which requires a ready-made rescue and recovery system.
According to the GAO, the US Navy is already facing maintenance problems - even in peacetime. For example, modern ships are literally stuffed with a variety of electronics that simply did not exist during the Second World War. This makes it difficult to carry out work and imposes increased requirements on contractors.
The contractors regularly violate the established schedule and deliver ships late. In 2014-2020. the total duration of such delays for all orders reached 38.9 thousand days, which is equivalent to the permanent absence of 15 warships in service. In a number of cases, the American fleet places orders with foreign enterprises, and these works are also not always completed on time.
However, the Accounts Chamber does not consider the situation to be catastrophic. A full-fledged rescue and recovery system has been built and is functioning, which has all the necessary capabilities - from damage control by the crew to overhaul in a dry dock or even disposal. However, this is only a peacetime service.
Circle of problems
The GAO describes ten major US naval maintenance challenges at all levels. The first on this list is the lack of a clear and understandable doctrine for organizing repair and reconstruction in a major conflict. In this regard, there is no well-developed system that distributes roles of various kinds between the structures of the Navy and industry. This is acceptable in the current environment, but in wartime it will make it difficult to organize repairs.
The Court of Accounts believes that the navy relies excessively on industry assistance. The crews of the ships are able to carry out minor repairs by replacing damaged units and parts. At the same time, they are almost not taught to restore these products. Accordingly, the dependence on supplies and ship repairs is increasing.
The Navy has a certain stock of parts and assemblies, but there is no certainty that it will be sufficient for a major conflict. In addition, the procurement processes for such items may not correspond to the actual needs of the warring fleet. There may be situations in which the repair will be delayed due to the lack of the necessary products - even if the contractor has begun to manufacture them.
The command of the Navy has insufficient experience in organizing logistics. Only in 2019, the first command post exercises were held, the central theme of which was logistics.In the future, at such games, they began to work out the issues of rescuing ships and organizing repairs at sea.
The Navy's own rescue fleet is complemented by private contractors. The GAO fears that in a major conflict they will backtrack for security reasons. The same applies to the civilian personnel of the armed forces. Not all such specialists will be able or willing to be present in a war zone or overseas bases - and the Navy will not be able to force them.
Repairs or maintenance in foreign ports may be difficult or impossible. A foreign base can be destroyed or damaged by the enemy. Also, a foreign partner can refuse to cooperate, not wanting to get hit.
Finally, the existing ship repair facilities are working almost at the limit of their capabilities, and we are talking only about planned peacetime measures. The available power reserve is sufficient only for the average repair of individual ships. The previously proposed and currently implemented measures to optimize the repair system cannot fundamentally change the situation.
GAO analysts in collaboration with experts from related organizations have developed 15 recommendations for 8 structures of the Pentagon. Their implementation will allow to solve the existing problems and create a reserve for further growth of repair capacities. In the long term, they will be able to reach the level necessary to support the operations of the Navy in wartime.
First of all, it is proposed to create a new structure under the Ministry of the Navy, which will unite the existing and newly formed working groups. This organization will coordinate repair work of all types and levels, incl. restoration of ships after battle. The Navy is interested in the emergence of such an organization, but has not yet created one.
The new structure should form and adopt general development strategies and work methods, in accordance with which the fleet and contractors will operate. The level of training of the personnel of such a body is of great importance.
The fleet must study its ships and current threats, developing basic scenarios and risk models. Information on vulnerabilities and risks is proposed to be used when updating guidance documents on damage control and recovery of equipment. Such processes should be carried out regularly, due to which the obsolescence of its materiel and the development of anti-ship weapons of a potential enemy will be taken into account.
The United States has a fairly well-developed ship repair system, but its real capabilities are far from ideal. The solution to the whole range of urgent problems of peacetime is provided: minor repairs are carried out in the bases, and shipbuilding and repair plants perform more complex work. There is also a certain reserve of capacity, which allows for unscheduled repairs.
However, any encounter with a sufficiently developed enemy will lead to a serious deterioration of the situation. By damaging just a few ships, the enemy will be able to overload the American repair system. Accordingly, the combat strength and capabilities of the US Navy will be reduced indefinitely. The continuation of the conflict will lead to an additional reduction in combat-ready pennants.
The current situation seriously threatens the combat capability of the Navy. In the future, the situation may improve - if the fleet accepts the recommendations of the Accounts Chamber and takes all the necessary steps in time. However, the elaboration and implementation of new programs will take some time, perhaps even several years. Until then, the repair potential will only correspond to peacetime.
It should be borne in mind that the Navy is a key component of the US military. It is they who are responsible for the demonstration of the flag in all regions of the World Ocean, and not a single operation of the last decades has done without them.In the foreseeable future, the fleet should become the main means of countering China in the Pacific. Meanwhile, the PRC is developing its fleet and already surpasses the United States in the number of pennants in combat strength. Probably, in the foreseeable future, quality parity will also be obtained.
Thus, the US Navy finds itself in a rather difficult situation, which leads to significant risks to national interests. However, government agencies are aware of the existing problems and are looking for a way out. How soon it will be possible to bring the repair system to the desired level is unknown. Until that time, Washington will have to take into account objective restrictions and pursue a peaceful policy without exposing the fleet to unjustified risks.