The Navy’s failure to oversee maintenance of supply ships operated by contractors has gotten so bad that one “developed a hole in the hull” while it was transporting Marine Corps gear to an exercise and never made it to its destination, according to a Pentagon Inspector General report released last month.
The IG’s probe lambastes the sea service’s Military Sealift Command, or MSC, for failing to properly oversee maintenance of its prepositioned ships ― a fleet of vessels strategically placed around the globe and packed with supplies in case a large-scale war suddenly erupts.
It is the latest alarm to be sounded over the sorry readiness woes of MSC vessels, ships with an unsexy but vital wartime mission.
Between December and August, IG investigators focused on MSC’s 20 prepositioned ships that are contractor-operated because they comprise the majority of the 26 prepositioning vessels.
They determined that MSC officials fail to ensure these vessels are maintained or provided with preventive maintenance plans.
MSC also doesn’t verify that the contractors perform preventive maintenance when they say they do, IG found.
“As a result, MSC is unable to accurately assess the condition and readiness of the (contactor-operated) ships, which has impeded the combatant commanders’ ability to carry out planned operations," the report states.
Navy ships that provide at-sea resupply of fuel, ammo and other surface combatant essentials have seen a surge of readiness issues in the past five years.
The MSC Prepositioning Program plops gear and supplies on ships bobbing in oceans across the world to ensure a rapid response due to major war or humanitarian disaster.
It serves all four branches and the Defense Logistics Agency, with the services determining the cargo and funding the program.
Prepositioned ships can equip and supply 16,000 Marines for a month but Corps officials alerted IG investigators to a pair of instances “where a prepositioning ship was unable to attend planned exercises because of maintenance deficiencies,” the report states.
MSC spokesman Troy VanLeunen told Navy Times that the ship PFC Dewayne T. Williams developed a two-centimeter by five-centimeter hole in its hull while the ship was departing Diego Garcia for an exercise in April 2017.
“The ship received a temporary repair before departing for a regularly scheduled overhaul in June 2017,” he said in an email.
By failing to make sure the contractors performed scheduled preventive maintenance to get the most of the ships' lives, the taxpayer might have incurred nearly $140 million in recent unplanned overhaul and dry dock costs, the IG estimated.
“MSC committed $544.7 million to contractors without assurance that they would execute all the required maintenance on its prepositioning fleet,” the IG report states.
Marine officials reported that when one ship experienced overhaul delays, it cost the Corps more than $517,000 to maintain equipment that sat out exposed to the elements, plus another $177,000 to extend a stevedore contract, the report states.
The average age of the supply fleet's ships is 43 years, and Virginia Rep. Rob Wittman said this week that such ships would be vital should a conventional war break out.
In other cases, MSC officials failed to train contractors on the system they’re supposed to use to report problems, IG determined.
One ship’s chief engineer told investigators that the maintenance system only listed procedures for six of the 12 life rafts on the ship, “for several years.”
That crewman also said the Navy provided no maintenance plan for upkeep of the ship’s winches.
These problems were exacerbated by contracts that “did not state specific requirements for the contractors’ training” and use of the reporting system, according to the IG.
The U.S. Army has been laying the foundations to fight once again in Europe. But if war were to break out tomorrow, the U.S. military could be hard-pressed to move the number of tanks, heavy guns and equipment it would need to face-off with Russian forces.
MSC officials told IG that their agency had sought funding to fix some of the deficiencies beginning in 2013 and expected to receive a partial financial injection during the fiscal year that begins on Oct. 1, 2019.
“MSC also affirmed that it will continue to request additional funding until the effort is completed,” the report states.
Command spokesman VanLeunen said MSC already began undertaking several of the IG report’s recommendations, including hiking management oversight and readiness assessments for the contractor-run ships.
Officials implemented an enhanced inspections program and the command is updating contract language that will help ensure mariners on the ships know how to use the maintenance reporting system, he added.