The Navy has a serious shipbuilding problem

  • 18 June 2018
  • NormanL

The Government Accountability Office has a special report on the U.S. Navy, and the problems it has faced over the last decade as it seeks to expand the fleet. For anyone concerned about the threats facing this country, the report should be required reading. The data aren't pretty:

In 2007, the Navy embarked on a plan for a 330-ship fleet by 2018. Congress supported this plan, appropriating $24 billion more than the Navy’s budget request of $182 billion.

Things have not gone according to plan. Today, the Navy has a fleet of just 280 ships. That’s not only fewer ships than it planned on—that’s fewer than it had in 2007.

How did this happen?

We found that since 2007, Navy ships:

* had cost overruns of $11 billion,
* were routinely delivered months or even years late,
* joined the fleet with construction deficiencies and incomplete work,
* deployed with performance and reliability problems.

The problems are deep and troubling:

Successful shipbuilding programs match what they’re planning to build with the resources required to build them—like time, money, technologies, and design knowledge. These programs make sure they have sufficient knowledge at key points before moving into the next phase, and they follow a quality assurance process to minimize ship deficiencies.

The Navy, on the other hand, often moves ahead in the acquisition process without having that knowledge—which increases risk. In many cases, programs start ship construction before the design is finished, for example. The Navy is able to proceed without the required levels of knowledge because of policies and processes that enable deviation from the best practices.

Take the Ford-class aircraft carrier, for example. The Navy underestimated its cost and schedule, and began construction while still developing critical technologies. The Navy took delivery of the lead carrier in 2017—over 2 years late, more than $2 billion over budget, and incomplete. It won’t be ready to deploy until 2022.

Congress plays a role here, too, pushing for greater defense spending, but largely ignoring long-standing problems with existing programs. That's often how politics work inside the beltway, but it has real life consequences for taxpayers and armed forces personnel.

There is a good case for a larger Navy that can address growing security concerns around the globe. That larger Navy won't be realized if the brass, and Congress, continues to fumble the design and built-out of those ships.