The Navy Is Creating a New Senior Leader Position to Attack Maintenance Backlog

Shipyard workers perform upgrades on the forward mooring station onboard Independence variant littoral combat ship USS Montgomery (LCS 8), July 28, 2017. (U.S. Navy photo/Adam Ross)
Shipyard workers perform upgrades on the forward mooring station onboard Independence variant littoral combat ship USS Montgomery (LCS 8), July 28, 2017. (U.S. Navy photo/Adam Ross)

The day after the Navy announced that a carrier strike group was deploying without its broken aircraft carrier, officials said the service would create a new senior-level position to address maintenance backlogs and other challenges.

The service is creating a new deputy assistant Navy secretary for sustainment position on Oct. 1, officials told reporters at the Pentagon on Friday. The still-to-be-named official will oversee funding for repairs and modernization across the Navy and Marine Corps and will report to James Geurts, the assistant secretary of the Navy for research, development and acquisition.

As the Navy and Marine Corps stretch some of their legacy ships, aircraft, vehicles and other equipment beyond their planned lifespan, they need someone to help execute the mission, Geurts said. The Navy has been plagued with maintenance backlogs on its ships and submarines, and the Marine Corps has fought to get its aviation readiness levels back up after years of deployments.

Keeping existing equipment running is as important as fielding the new stuff, Geurts said, and the new deputy assistant Navy secretary will help keep that mission on track.

"We have to get better," he said when announcing the news Friday.

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Geurts made the announcement as four ships left the East Coast for a deployment without the aircraft carrier Harry S. Truman, which stayed back to continue repairs for an electrical issue.

And that's not the only delay the service has had in getting its vessels out to sea.

Vice. Adm. Thomas Moore, head of Naval Sea Systems Command, said they've made improvements to the ship maintenance pipeline, but there's still more work to be done, pointing to the attack submarine Boise's much-delayed overhaul.

"Overall, the numbers are headed in the right direction," he said. "We'd like to move a lot faster than we are, for sure. And the goal is eventually to get them all delivered on time."

Fixing problems with submarine and ship maintenance has required taking a careful look at shipyards' capacities and the way the Navy writes contracts, Geurts said. The new deputy assistant Navy secretary for sustainment will make sure the service has the right policies and people in place to keep things moving.

"This director of sustainment will look across everything to say, 'Where do we have policies or wrong incentives or misalignment in what we're trying to do to support the fleet and how do we get after those [problems]?" he said.

After years of deployment extensions that kept equipment in the fight longer, deferring maintenance, the Navy and Marine Corps' maintenance cycle got off track. Moore said they're now not only working with leaders to steer them away from pushing maintenance off to prevent bigger problems from popping up later, they're turning to data to direct maintenance strategy.

On destroyers, for example, Moore said they almost always find corrosion in the gas terminal uptakes. For years, they opened it up, inspected it and then decided what to do.

Now, they're assuming they're going to find that problem, so they're working it into the directed maintenance and plan to pay to fix the issue from Day 1, he said.

Geurts said the new person overseeing sustainment will look at that type of trend and analyze whether the Navy needs a new piece of equipment, technology or design change.

And since maintenance needs are continuous, the person overseeing sustainment will have a challenging job, he said.

"We will never be done with this, but I think we're seeing positive signs as we take a much more systematic approach to this," said Geurts, who added he remains cautiously optimistic that modernization and maintenance will continue to pick up speed.

"We have got to deliver on time and in full," he said, "and we have got to get the confidence back up in the fleet that we can do that repeatedly."

-- Gina Harkins can be reached at gina.harkins@military.com. Follow her on Twitter @ginaaharkins.

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