Politically motivated budget cuts and a hiring freeze have left the Navy with a shipyard workforce incapable of maintaining even its most valuable hardware, including the fleet of hunter-killer submarines and aircraft carriers that are crucial to projecting U.S. force across the globe.
Officials are warning that employee shortages mean completions of ongoing retrofits are being delayed, endangering deployment plans and compromising international agreements that require tight time lines.
The Navy has already warned that current projections show repairs to four ships over the next year won’t be completed on time, as officials urgently work to rebuild a shipyard workforce that dropped to an all-time low of 30,000 Defense Department civilian personnel from a target of about 33,500 workers because of budget cuts associated with sequestration.
“We’re not getting them out on time,” Naval Sea Systems Command spokesman Rory O’Connor said.
The Navy had 17 ships in various stages of repair during fiscal 2014, said Christopher Johnson, another spokesman for the command, which designs, builds, delivers and maintains ships for the Navy.
Whenever they have a repair delay, Navy planners have to look “across the fleet to determine how to adjust ship schedules,” said Lt. Cmdr. Cate Cook, a spokeswoman for Navy Fleet Forces Command, which allocates the ships. She said that not having the needed vessels available can be a devastating blow to any number of crucial missions.
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“Maybe an embassy has to be evacuated,” Lt. Cmdr. Cook said. “Maybe a hot spot heats up and we have to put Marines on the beach. Maybe the president decides that we need to be bombing country X.”
Navy ships are often sent on several deployments and then brought back to shipyards for a bow-to-stern overhaul. The work can stretch beyond a year for ships as large as an aircraft carrier, which have a crew of more than 6,200 and a height equivalent to a 24-story building. The overhaul includes repairing deteriorated valves, patching up rudders and replacing pipes.
Officials thus far have tried to devise backup plans to account for the delays, on occasion even extending deployments.
Bryan Clark, an analyst with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Analysis, said the average carrier strike group — a group of Navy ships with an aircraft carrier at its center — is currently spending an extra month at sea, with deployments stretching between eight and nine months because of repair delays to other ships.
Retired Vice Adm. Peter Daly, CEO of the U.S. Naval Institute, said lengthening deployments is one of the easiest ways to erode morale among sailors. In fact, he said, low morale has already prompted some of the Navy’s highly trained personnel to leave the military.
“What we’re starting to see is the beginning of people voting with their feet,” he said.
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The maintenance delays began in 2012, and so far the majority of the ships that have missed their delivery dates have been fast-attack submarines, said Rear Adm. Mark Whitney, deputy commander of logistics, maintenance and industrial operations.
Now Navy officials are mulling over how much maintenance work they will need to push off into future years.
For Rear Adm. Whitney, the detainment of a single ship is simply unacceptable.
“I want to deliver them all,” he said. “That’s the goal: deliver everything on time, including the fast-attack submarines, just by virtue of the fact that what we have is a priority list [and] they’re always kind of at the bottom. That’s not satisfying. We need to deliver them all.”
As Navy officials try to repair the shipyard workforce deficiency at its four naval shipyards — Norfolk in Portsmouth, Virginia; Portsmouth in Kittery, Maine; Puget Sound in Bremerton, Washington; and Pearl Harbor in Hawaii — they remain wary of the fact that they will not be able to reach their maximum hiring rate until 2016.
“The target that we’re aiming for is 33,500 workers, and we are at about — I think we’re just approaching 31,000,” Rear Adm. Whitney said.
To speed up that process, the Navy is implementing a new training procedure called “onboarding,” which shepherds new employees with no experience through the hiring and training phases. Prior to 2012, Navy shipyards employed about five experienced employees for every new person. Back then, it was easier to absorb lesser-experienced workers and place them alongside seasoned employees so they could learn their craft, Mr. Johnson said.
“The employee demographic has shifted significantly recently, to the point that over the next two years, 5,000 employees will have less than one year of shipyard experience,” he said.
Mr. Daly said the turmoil resulting from workforce shortages is prompting the Navy’s highly trained personnel to say, “I don’t want to do this anymore.”
“They are looking for jobs outside the service and [are] confident they will find employment, even in a competitive market,” he said. “You always lose the best people first, because the people who are the smartest and the most highly trained are most confident of their value,” he said.