The fleet's most ready ships are showing signs of wear and tear, a new watchdog report has concluded.
A Government Accountability Office report concluded that higher operating costs for forward-based ships, combined with a drop in training readiness and a rise in broken equipment, are proof that these ships are increasingly overworked and undermaintained.
The report, "Navy Force Structure: Sustainable Plan and Comprehensive Assessment Needed to Mitigate Long-Term Risks to Ships Assigned to Overseas Homeports," published May 29, details a troubling culture of pushing off maintenance for forward-deployed naval force ships, whose frequent patrols typically make them among the fleet's highest op tempo ships year after year.
Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jon Greenert has made the 37 forward-based ships a central tenet of his strategy to increase presence in the world's most unstable regions while facing constrained budgets and a fleet whose size has stagnated in the past decade. Forward-basing, proponents say, allows the Navy to have warships ready to respond around the world without the lengthy transit times for stateside ships, noting that a force without these ready-duty vessels would need to deploy more ships for longer cruises, yielding more wear and tear.
GAO knocked the Navy for the funding shortfall and for lacking a plan that would improve training and upkeep.
"Although the Navy's decision process for moving individual ships overseas identifies actions and resources needed, it does not assess risks that such moves pose to costs, readiness, or expected service lives of ships that the Navy can expect based on its historical experience operating ships from overseas homeports," the report said.
The Essex is a case in point. The amphibious assault ship was in terrible condition when it returned to the states from Japan in 2012, according to the GAO report. Years of deferred maintenance led to the costliest depot maintenance period in the Navy's history, the report said, and raised questions about the attention the Navy paid to its material condition while deployed overseas for 12 years. The ship also suffered damages when it collided with the oiler Yukon off the California coast in 2012.
"During this depot maintenance period, the Essex required over twice the amount of maintenance work the Navy expected to perform," the report reads. "According to the Navy Surface Maintenance Engineering Planning Program documentation, the Navy used 364,280 labor days on the Essex compared to the 177,206 labor days that were planned for this depot availability."
Similarly, when the crew of the cruiser Antietam arrived in Japan in 2013 to take over the cruiser Cowpens in a crew swap, the ship's CO reported ""significant deficiencies in the material condition of the ship."
The ship, under the command of Capt. Greg Gombert, received $7 million of repairs upon its return to San Diego from Japan. But Cowpens was rushed out the door for another deployment in 2014 and ship broke down midway through, forcing Cowpens to pull into Sasebo, Japan, for more than a week for engine repairs.
"We're weren't ready for an operational deployment," a former senior Cowpens crew member told Navy Times last March. "Get underway, pull into ports, show the flag — we could do that. But we weren't ready to be operational."
More need than supply
The increasing strain on FDNF ships is a result of a smaller fleet and unrelenting demands from combatant commanders, said Bryan Clark, a retired Navy commander and analyst with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington, D.C.
"It points out that there continues to be a mismatch between supply and demand," Clark said.
With 271 deployable battle force ships, the fleet is generating the same presence numbers — about 95 to 100 ships deployed in any given week — as it was in 2000 with 318 ships. That's because the roughly 40 FDNF ships are considered deployed at all times, Clark said. They are charged with maintaining high levels of readiness to be able to get underway in a day, or even hours.
But because of the mission load placed on those ships, the Navy falls behind on training and maintenance.
The destroyers in Rota, Spain, are a perfect example, Clark said. The Navy will have four DDGs in Rota by the end of the year and already the ships have been ridden hard. They are deployed there for ballistic missile defense patrols that cycle four months on patrol with four months in the yards for training and maintenance.
At least that's how it's supposed to work.
"It's a sustainable schedule if you really do four months out then four months home," Clark said. "The problem we run into with the FDNF ships, COCOMs will demand them. So the ships in Rota are called to do counter-piracy missions, patrols in response to the refugee crisis in North Africa, Black Sea patrols, etc.
"All of that has an impact of the readiness on the ship. But because they are forward deployed, they are seen as available and easy to access."
FDNF ships spend 42 more days per year underway in operational theaters such as 7th Fleet (Asia-Pacific) and 5th Fleet (the Middle East), according to figures in the GAO report. But to get there, the Navy has cut corners.
"Our analysis shows that the primary reason for the greater number of deployed underway days provided by overseas-homeported ships results from the Navy's decision to truncate training and maintenance periods on these ships in order to maximize their operational availability," the report said.
Some who read the report questioned the GAO's conclusions. One retired senior Navy official, who asked for anonymity because of potential conflicts of interest, said the report dinged the Navy for higher overall costs — about 20 percent overall — of operating FDNF ships, but didn't say what the country is saving by having the ships forward.
That's because the Navy has to account for transit times. It can take a Norfolk-based coastal patrol ship, for instance, more than a month to arrive in the Persian Gulf and a month to get back, assuming no port visits. But for the eight PCs based in Bahrain, they are a sea-and-anchor detail away from being operational.
And in Navy math, time is money.
"What they failed to note [is] that for that 20 percent more money you get 100 percent more deployed days," the senior official said. "And if you did not have that FDNF ship, you'd need four fully manned and crewed ships to get even the smaller amount of presence that a CONUS-based ship provides. No mention of the cost of procuring, manning, training and equipping three more ships that you now need because you decided to not FDNF."
The senior official went on to say that reports of equipment failure on ships have gone up because FDNF ships are worked harder than CONUS ships but also because of an effort to make sure ships are reporting their broken gear in a timely manner.
The Navy is on track to fix its maintenance issues via the Optimized-Fleet Response Plan, the Navy's scheme to get strike group deployments down from the nearly 10-month average typical in recent years to 7.5 months, a Navy spokesman said.
"O-FRP is currently improving readiness and leading to a predictable cycle for maintaining, training and deploying our U.S.-based carrier strike groups and amphibious ships," Lt. Tim Hawkins said in a statement. "And we are actively looking at implementing the O-FRP construct for FDNF ships stationed overseas."
One thing that's clear:The Navy isn't backing off forward-basing ships.
In a 2014 plan, Greenert called for increasing the number of forward-deployed ships to meet ambitious presence goals around the world. As part of that effort, the Navy plans to forward deploy ships such as the joint high speed vessel and the mobile landing platform, both operated by Military Sealift Command, as well as conventional Navy forces such as cruisers and destroyers.