How to Grow the Military Without Buying More Ships, Planes, Tanks

Petty Officer 2nd Class Kristina Young / U.S. Navy

NAVAL BASE SAN DIEGO, CALIFORNIA — At any given time, up to one-third of the haze-gray destroyers, cruisers, and amphibious ships based here are under significant repair.

Some have white party tents erected on their decks, others are encased in scaffolding, and a few are lifted completely out of the water on massive drydocks — all signals that overhauls are under way. Ships can remain like this, unable to deploy, anywhere from weeks to years, depending on the scale of the maintenance.

“When you have assets like that tied up, it’s hard on the Navy,” Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan said earlier this month after visiting the shipyard, nestled in San Diego Bay.

That’s why Shanahan — a former Boeing executive who managed the firm’s massive supply chain — is looking for ways to shorten the repair time for not just ships, but planes and combat vehicles too.

“The ideal behind having less time in maintenance is that in effect you have a larger Navy because there’s more ships at sea,” he said. “The whole thing is around speed. How do we get speed?”

About one-quarter of the Navy’s surface ships are currently going through extended maintenance periods that last anywhere from six months to a year. During that period, major components, like engines, are overhauled. Even ships that aren’t in this extended period of downtime undergo about three to four weeks of maintenance quarterly while in port.

Nuclear-powered aircraft carriers are sidelined for years halfway through their expected service lives for refueling. The USS George Washington, commissioned in 1992, began a four-year mid-life maintenance last year.

Getting these ships, planes, and combat vehicles out of overhaul faster frees them up for training and deployments, thus boosting readiness and lethality, the top priority for Defense Secretary James Mattis.

“The instability — in terms of the availability of ships and scheduling — is probably one of the more complicated aspects of this,” Shanahan said. “If you could get something that’s smooth, in terms of backlog and schedule for the suppliers and contractors, they’re going to be a lot more productive.”

How productive?

“There’s probably [many] things that if we fixed, you could get a 25-percent improvement in throughput,” Shanahan said.

This is not the first time defense leaders have looked to improve ship maintenance times. In 2002, the Navy launched a project called SHIPMAIN, which looked to inject efficiency in the repairs. After four years during which Navy officials said the project saved nearly $600 million, SHIPMAIN was folded into the service’s wider ship maintenance efforts.

Aircraft are a different story. It’s been widely reported how maintenance issues have grounded nearly two-thirds of the Navy’s strike fighters. The military will use an new, computer-based database to manage logistics, maintenance and the supply chain of its new F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. But there have been numerous problems bringing the system online.

“Instead of being sub-optimized, how do we want to run some of these areas like an airline because the availability is greater,” Shanahan said of aviation maintenance, a topic he discussed with the commander of Naval Air Forces while in San Diego. “What are the things that we can steal shamelessly that lend themselves to solving some of these systemic problems.”

The shipyard visit was a rare trip for Shanahan, who routinely puts in a six-day work week at the Pentagon, and it underlines his devotion to the idea of increased availability by reducing maintenance time. (He also visited Air Force Space Command on the same trip.) He’d previously only taken two official trips since becoming the Pentagon’s No. 2 civilian in July, but he was filling in for Mattis both of those times.

When he was nominated for the Pentagon post last year, the Seattle Times wrote that while at Boeing, Shanahan “was credited with the smooth increases of production at Boeing’s major final assembly sites” in Washington State and South Carolina.

Now he hopes to take some of those supply chain management and manufacturing lessons and apply them to maintenance across the military.

“Shipbuilding is a little bit different than airplane building, than is different than cars, but there are a lot of these practices that lend themselves to the other business,” he said after the visit to San Diego.

A key to making it all work is having the budget to pay for the maintenance work. The outlook there is much better as Congress recently approved a steep increase in defense spending over the next two years.

“If it takes less time to go through maintenance, it costs less,” Shanahan said. “If it costs less, there’s more ships available and the shipyard can put more ships through there, everybody’s a winner.”

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