Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The Navy's Death Spiral

Do you know what a death spiral is?  It’s when an organization is locked into a path leading to collapse and each action it takes in an attempt to deal with the situation only makes the situation worse.

Here’s an example.  My business is losing money so I cut costs across the board.  Unfortunately, the reduced salesman travel expenses and smaller advertising budget results in fewer sales so I lose more money which means I have to make more cost cuts which means still fewer sales which means even more cost cuts which means …  Eventually, I’m bankrupt.  I was caught in a death spiral.

The Navy is firmly caught in a death spiral and seems blissfully unaware of it.

The fleet is shrinking faster than new construction can be funded and built.  So, the Navy has to send ships on longer deployments to compensate for having too few ships.  But that wears out the ships even faster and results in more premature retirements and the fleet shrinks further which means the remaining ships have to deploy longer and with shorter maintenance availabilities and so their wear is accelerated even more which means the fleet gets smaller …

Navy - Caught in a Death Spiral?

Cost enters into this, too.  The Navy wants to build more new ships to increase fleet size but they’re on essentially a fixed budget.  So, they early retire ships to free up funds for new construction.  Unfortunately, the new ships are so expensive that fewer ships are being built than are being retired and so the fleet shrinks.  The Navy’s solution?  More early decommissionings and slashed maintenance to fund new ships but that just results in ships wearing out faster and the fleet shrinking even more …

The death spiral also applies to Navy aircraft.  Aircraft only have a certain number of allowable arrested landings and flight hours before they have to be retired.  Because of the last decade of higher than expected op tempos, aircraft are being used up faster than anticipated resulting in aircraft shortages.  As a result, returning air wings are cross decking aircraft to deploying air wings to cover shortages.  However, this simply leads to accelerated landing rates and flight hours which causes more shortages.   

Here’s some of the evidence for what I’m describing.  From a Navy Times article (1)

"The Navy’s top officer says he’s not concerned by the fleet’s operational pace, even though ship deployments are becoming more frequent and longer, stretching out to what officials have described as the new norm of seven months and beyond."

"Over the next two years, 11 ships are scheduled for eight-month deployments — a length once limited to crises and surges — a top personnel official said in February."

"Meanwhile, short-notice deployments are cropping up. The Carl Vinson carrier strike group, for example, deployed in late November, only 5½ months after returning from a 6½-month cruise."
The Navy's policy is for ships to have two months undeployed for every month deployed so as to allow time for crew rest, ship maintenance, and training.  The example of Vinson shows a ratio of less than one as opposed to the desired two.  Maintenance and training are being shorted.  Down the road, when Vinson is early retired due to being in poor physical shape, everyone will wonder how that came to be.  Well, this is how.  This is the definition of a death spiral.  We don't have enough ships so we skip maintenance but skipping maintenance and more frequent deployments means the ships wear out sooner which means we have even fewer ships which means we have to skip more maintenance and deploy even more often which means ...

Not enough evidence for you?  It was just announced that USS Stennis would deploy four months early to cover the carrier gap in the Mid East.  That’s a lot of maintenance and training time lost.  The death spiral is wearing out even (or especially!) our carriers.

But, on the plus side, CNO Greenert isn't concerned!  We're walking off the cliff with smiles on our faces!

Can the death spiral be stopped and, if so, how?

Obviously, the first step is for the Navy to recognize that it’s in a death spiral.  Unfortunately, to all outward appearances the Navy seems unaware of the phenomenon and you can’t fix what you can’t see.  Perhaps the Navy is aware of the problem privately but, if so, none of their public actions or policies show any sign of it.  Longer deployments are becoming the norm.  Several Ticonderoga cruisers are being retired early.  INSURV failures are at an all time high.  Spare parts shortages are common.  If the Navy recognizes the death spiral, none of their actions show it!

For the sake of discussion, let’s assume they were aware of the problem and wanted to break out of the death spiral – what could be done?  It starts by deciding what your true priority is.  Is it fleet size?  Is it fleet quality?  Is it fleet readiness?  Is it, as CNO Greenert claims, “warfighting first”? 

At the risk of grossly oversimplifying, the answer is readiness.  It doesn’t matter how big the fleet is if the ships aren’t ready to fight.  That means that maintenance and training of existing ships and crew is more important than putting new hulls in the water.  Witness the LCS which has no credible combat capability or the LPD-17 class which is currently deemed unsuitable for its intended purpose by the DOT&E/DTE – lots of new hulls with no readiness.

Having identified the proper priority, resources and funds need to be reallocated to support readiness.  Specifically, new construction funding needs to be cut in half, at least, and the resulting freed up funds devoted to bringing the existing fleet up to full maintenance levels and vastly improved training levels.  That will actually increase the fleet numbers by a few since we won’t have to retire usable ships.  Moving forward, new construction needs to be focused on larger numbers of solid, basic ship designs as opposed to win-the-war-single-handed designs that wind up being money pits. 

I won’t go further with details of the solution.  The thrust of the solution is obvious and I’ll leave a more detailed discussion for another time.

(1) Navy Times“CNO Not Concerned by Higher Operational Tempo”, Sam Fellman,  Mar 26, 2012, http://www.navytimes.com/news/2012/03/navy-chief-of-naval-operations-operational-tempo-032612w/

1 comment:

  1. Aircraft only have a certain number of allowable arrested landings and flight hours before they have to be retired.


    I'm not defending the Navy on this issue, but we've blown through flight hour limitations on other T/M/S in the past.

    The naval aircraft I flew (P-3) had a projected service life of 7,500 flt hrs, but most of them are at about 16,000 flt hrs now. If we didn't have the P-8 coming, we'd be in big trouble.

    The reality isn't that we'll retire aircraft on schedule. We'll probably just fly them less to make them last longer. And that hurts aircrew proficiency and experience.


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