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GAO: U.S. Navy Will Have to Spend Far More on its Shipyards

Nimitz
The carrier USS Nimitz in drydock at Puget Sound Naval Shipyard (USN)

Published May 16, 2022 1:47 AM by The Maritime Executive

The Government Accountability Office believes that the U.S. Navy's badly-needed shipyard modernization program is going to cost far more than the service is projecting, according to a report released last week. 

In 2018, the Navy embarked on a 20-year, $21 billion modernization program called the Shipyard Infrastructure Optimization Plan (SIOP). The work is long overdue: some of the Navy's yards predate the founding of the United States, and actively-used infrastructure includes facilities that were built during World War I. For example, Norfolk Naval Shipyard's Dry Dock 4 was built in 1919, and it is undergoing a massive overhaul as part of the SIOP program. 

According to GAO, these restoration efforts are not enough to reduce the maintenance backlog - and in fact, the backlog is still growing. The office calculated that the Navy's public shipyards now have $1.6 billion more incomplete facility repairs than they did five years ago. The schedule for the SIOP program has slipped, and even the planning phase won't be completed until 2025.

While conditions have been improving at three yards - Pearl Harbor, Puget Sound and Portsmouth - the average facility condition rating at Norfolk Naval Shipyard has declined since 2016, despite SIOP investments. All four yards have an average condition in the "poor" category, and they all rank among the lowest-scored depot maintenance facilities across the U.S. service branches.

Delays in fixing these problems are cause for the concern, but GAO also flagged the rising cost of repairs. The Navy has 17 dry docks to fix, and it originally planned to spend $4 billion on all of them combined. However, the cost of just the first three dock projects has grown by $4 billion - the same amount originally budgeted for all 17. 

In its report, GAO warned that implementing the plan will require funding "well above the levels allocated in recent years for shipyard infrastructure." In hearings before the Senate Subcommittee on Seapower last week, GAO defense director Diana Maurer put it a bit more strongly, calling the Navy's yard modernization cost estimates "wildly off point."

The work will be costly, but it is of pressing concern. The public yards handle maintenance for the Navy's nuclear-powered submarines and carriers. GAO assesses that in their current state, the four yards will not be able to provide about one third of the drydockings that the fleet will need between 2020 and 2040. In particular, several of the Navy's drydocks will become obsolete if they are not modified. Some sub-maintenance drydocks are too small to accommodate newer classes of submarines and will no longer have a use after the Los Angeles-class attack subs retire. None of the 17 docks are ready to repair the next-generation Ford-class aircraft carriers, which have already developed a history of heavy maintenance requirements.