One of the common themes in naval blog discussions is the suggestion to use more commercially available parts. However, Navy attempts to do so have revealed problems that make this approach less feasible and desirable than anticipated.
Another initiative that began in the early 2000s involved the Navy using more shipbuilder-provided commercially-bought systems on ships rather than systems the Navy developed and provided to the ship. However, maintaining commercial systems has been more expensive than anticipated for a variety of reasons, such as systems becoming obsolete and challenges acquiring manufacturer support. For example, the SSN 774 shipbuilding program made an effort to use commercial equipment that it assumed would never need repair or replacement—meaning that these parts would last the life of the submarine—without evaluating whether these parts actually had no repair needs. Further, SSN 774 program officials told us that the program office did not plan for the Navy to support many of the submarine’s commercial components because they initially planned to contract for logistics support. In all, the SSN 774 program asserted that over 4,000 parts on the submarine class would not need maintenance for the duration of the submarine’s life. However, since the submarines have been operating, many of these parts are failing, which has created unanticipated expenses. For example, Navy maintenance officials stated that they are planning to pay $360 million over the next 12 years to maintain a part of the propulsion system that it wrongly assumed would not need any maintenance at the time O&S costs were established. (1)
As we all know, the commercial market is a fast moving, ever evolving entity. We’ve all experienced the reality of a product being replaced and unavailable in just a few years when we try to replace or repair it. Why would this be any different for the Navy if they choose to use commercial products? To believe that replacement parts will be available for the 30 or 40 year life of a ship is just delusional and to believe that there’s such a thing as a product that never needs maintenance or replacement is to engage in a level of fantasy that is stunning in its refusal to acknowledge reality.
Unfortunately, these kinds of idiotic, unrealistic, and unproven assumptions all too often form the basis for Navy cost estimating and, invariably, prove wrong in reality.
There is certainly a place for commercial products but only in cases where the need is short term and/or the Navy ensures that longer term support (spares, service, and maintenance) will be available over the anticipated life of the ship or component. Of course, I’m not sure how one would possibly ensure such support remains available but that’s a separate issue.
The Navy needs to stop chasing after magic solutions (minimal manning, commercial products, etc.) and, instead, accept the need to do the hard work, like learning to repair the equipment you have, performing regular maintenance, providing on-board fabrication and repair shops for ships, buying sufficient spare parts, and training technicians to repair and maintain equipment.
(1)Government Accountability Office, “NAVY SHIPBUILDING Increasing Focus on Sustainment Early in the Acquisition Process Could Save Billions”, GAO 20-2, Mar 2020, p.43