Who provides the quality assurance for the Navy? Who insures that that Navy gets what it pays for? Who shepherds new ships through construction and into the fleet? Who monitors readiness in the fleet?
The answer, of course, is NAVSEA (Naval Sea Systems Command).
How are they doing? Well, given the deplorable state of the fleet, one would suspect that they are not performing their duties very well. Let’s take a closer look.
Among other duties, NAVSEA is responsible for the INSURV inspection program which is sort of a spot check intended to determine the readiness of ships. Thus, if the pattern of INSURV inspections shows that the ships are generally ready, we can feel confident about the fleet as a whole. With that in mind, the 2010 report from the Fleet Review Panel of Surface Forces Readiness, headed by VAdm. Philip Balisle (the famous Balisle report, as it’s referred to publicly) stated that of the then 14 Avenger class mine countermeasures (MCM) ships, only one could get underway and fully execute the mission.
Capt. Robin Rusell, speaking for NAVSEA’s Deputy Commander for Surface Warfare (SEA 21) was quoted,
“What we had was a naval sea systems organization that was … not as responsive as it could have been.”
NAVSEA should have been inspecting the ships and loudly proclaiming the fact that the MCM fleet, at least, was almost completely idled due to lack of maintenance. Instead, the INSURV inspections gave no hint of the state of the MCM fleet.
As the fleet continued to deteriorate, many other ships failed INSURV exams. Of course, a ship’s failure is not NAVSEA’s fault. Their job is simply to inspect and evaluate the ships. However, the INSURV failures became so frequent and embarrassing that the Navy resorted to classifying the results. Further, the inspection was eventually changed from a pass/fail event to an advisory report with no failure attached.
More recently, NAVSEA has been providing “helper” exams to give ships such as the LCS and LPD a better chance to “pass”. NAVSEA is totally missing the point that their mission is not to pass ships but to provide a realistic assessment of the condition of ships so that Navy leadership can address problems.
On a related note, cross-decking of crew and materials is a common pre-inspection practice. Vital needs that a ship is lacking are borrowed from another ship for purposes of passing the inspection and then the materials are returned after the inspection. Again, this completely misses the purpose of the inspection which should be a come-as-you-are event. If you fail, you fail and that gives Navy leadership the opportunity to provide corrective assistance to the ship in question. Cross-decking just covers up the problem. It’s up to NAVSEA to minimize this practice so as to obtain a more realistic assessment. Inspections should be unannounced.
NAVSEA is also responsible for conducting acceptance trials of new ships and determining whether the ships are complete and functional. With the LPD-17 program, NAVSEA failed badly even at this most basic function. As documented in a CRS report (1), the Navy accepted delivery of LPD-17 with 1.1 million man-hours of additional construction needed to complete the ship. LPD-18 was accepted with 400,000 man-hours remaining and LPD-19 was accepted with 45,000 additional man-hours needed. In fact, two years after LPD-17 was delivered, the report notes that 138 of 943 ship spaces remained unfinished – 15% of the ship was incomplete two years after acceptance.
The LCSs were accepted in similar unfinished states.
C’mon, now. It doesn’t get any simpler than this. Is the ship complete? NAVSEA couldn’t even do that correctly.
Commenting on one of the many LPD-17 mechanical problems, a
20-May-10 memo from Commander, U.S. Fleet Forces Command had this to say related to NAVSEA’s performance.
“Inadequate Government [ed.: NAVSEA] oversight during the construction process failed to prevent or identify as a problem the lack of cleanliness and quality assurance that resulted in contamination of closed systems.”
The memo goes on to cite a long list of oversight, maintenance, and training failures for which NAVSEA was responsible. The entire LPD program was a case study in failed acquisition, construction, acceptance, maintenance, and training.
You’ll recall that NAVSEA traces back to 1966 when BuShips was disbanded. The loss of the Navy’s General Board - BuShips combination was an event that the Navy has never recovered from and many of today’s current problems can be directly attributed to this loss. NAVSEA has been a disappointment, to say the least. A cursory comparison of the DOT&E annual reports to NAVSEA’s responsibilities reveals just how poorly NAVSEA has performed. The Navy needs to abolish NAVSEA and return to the General Board / BuShips model.
Before we leave this topic, let’s consider why NAVSEA has failed so badly. The reason is that NAVSEA falls under the Navy’s chain of command. Thus, NAVSEA marches to the orders of Navy leadership. That’s hardly a situation that encourages reporting of the unvarnished truth. Indeed, there is much evidence, direct and indirect, that Navy leadership has, indeed, exerted undue influence on NAVSEA.
Contrast NAVSEA’s conflicted organizational arrangement with that of Director, Operation Testing and Evaluation (DOT&E) which is responsible for performance testing of the military’s systems. The stunningly critical, honest, and effective (by comparison, at least) DOT&E reports clearly demonstrate the advantages and benefits of having the quality assurance functions divorced from the organization being evaluated.
Abolish NAVSEA !
(1) Congressional Research Services, Navy LPD-17 Amphibious Ship Procurement: Background, Issues, and Options for Congress, Ronald O'Rourke,
March 16, 2011