Several U.S. senators at a committee hearing on Tuesday expressed concern about the Navy backlog that has stretched repairs to the USS John S. McCain, which crashed near Singapore last year, to more than 15 months. Photo by MC2 Joshua Fulton/U.S. Navy/UPI | License Photo
Nov. 27 (UPI) -- Navy leaders told Congress on Tuesday that time and stable budgets will be required to sort out vessel maintenance delays and backlogs at the nation's public shipyards, and outlined a 30-year vessel repair and upgrade plan they will issue next spring.
Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Research, Development and Acquisition James Geurts testified that the 30-year plan would let them have a baseline over what will be required in shipyard capacity for both existing and future ships -- one which they do not have at the moment.
"We have not laid out the planning horizons," Geurts told senators, adding that shortages of skilled shipyard workers are one of the branch's major issues. "Our biggest in velocity is the work force... over 50 percent of shipyard workers have less than five years experience."
Geurts cited planning requirements and the "pretty staggering number" of workers the Navy requires to accomplish future goals.
The process building back up to capacity, said Deputy Chief of Operations for Warfare Systems Vice Admiral William Merz, is going to be a long one because of the necessary training and lack of industrial base, especially for submarine maintenance and construction.
Several senators noted that it has taken 15 months to repair the USS John S. McCain following it's collision last year, noting the timeframe is a long one for such a capital asset.
Merz said the vessel "was a mess, and took a lot to repair," with Geurts adding that a combination of factors, including more extensive repairs then were anticipated and modernization efforts that were conducted while it was in dock. Shipyard wait times -- alluded to in comments about worker shortages -- were also a significant factor, they said.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., cited a Government Accountability Office report issued earlier this month that found 14 submarines had spent a combined 61 months unable to deploy. The reason -- shipyard backlogs -- often led to delays on maintenance that left submarines idle in port after certifications expired while waiting for yard space.
Blumenthal noted that the report said that private shipyards such as General Dynamics Electric Boat in Groton, Conn., had spare capacity and that the Navy needs to do a better job of managing the balance between public and private shipyards to minimize costly and inefficient delays. The backlogs during the last decade, he pointed out, have left a shortage of submarines available for deployment.
Geurts said that the 30-year repair plan will address scheduling issues between public and private yards, and that the Navy plans to invest billions in capital assets and workers at public shipyards over the next 20 years.
When questioned about the future Columbia-class ballistic submarine construction, Geurts said "that is my number one priority" when it comes to ship acquisition. He said that problems with welding work on the ship's missile tubes are being rectified and will not affect the planned production schedule.
Geurts also said that a proposed new frigate, of which the Navy plans to acquire 20, has had it's requirements finalized and a Request For Proposal will be issued in the spring, with a contract issued by October 2020.
The frigate is meant to make up deficiencies of the Littoral Combat Ship, which is still being deployed as a light surface combatant.
"We took some lumps on that ship program, with a lot of lessons learned," Merz said, though he also added that the LCS has some fine capabilities.