Navy sailors say they are overworked and use ‘band-aids’ to get under way

Not enough time, not enough material and not enough people. That’s what the crews of more than a dozen ships told Government Accountability Office investigators in a report on actions needed to improve the maintenance of Navy ships released earlier this month.

In addition to reviewing Navy maintenance data, investigators also spoke to 107 junior and senior crew members from 16 ships across the fleet. They included submarines, aircraft carriers, cruisers and missile destroyers and dock landing ships. Their comments were corroborated by the fact “that independent analysts compile the notes of the meetings”.

Sailors’ comments paint a picture of an overstretched and understaffed fleet. It has also been noticeably covered in rust lately. And the problem boils down to four areas of concern, according to the report: crew shortages, high operational tempo, limited maintenance training, and shortages of parts and equipment. Many sailors also spoke of the difficulties encountered in carrying out maintenance tasks and the generally low priority given to them.

For the sailors, the difficulties began with the numbers. On a surface ship, the crew reported that six of the ship’s 13 electronics division positions were unfilled. On another ship, the electronics division had been reduced from 28 to 11 people, with only eight crew members who were fully qualified to perform maintenance duties. One ship reported that its maintenance division was only at 40% of its optimal crew level.

“A submarine can borrow 10-12 people from other ships for deployment,” read one comment. “Thereafter, a huge vacuum occurs when trained maintenance personnel depart to support a deployed submarine.”

FILE PHOTO: Sailors assigned to Pre-Commissioning Unit (PCU) Illinois (SSN 786) of the Virginia-class attack submarine salute after bringing the ship to life during a rehearsal for the upcoming commissioning ceremony of the submarine scheduled for October 29. Illinois is the US Navy’s 13th Virginia-class attack submarine and fourth ship in the US Navy named after the state of Illinois. (US Navy photo by Chief Petty Officer Darryl I. Wood/Released)

The situation was the same on land.

“Over the past few years, the Navy has consistently held positions open to enlisted personnel at shore-based maintenance providers 20% or more below authorized levels,” the report read.

Personnel from 10 of the 16 ships also reported that the demands imposed by undermanning also exacerbated morale and mental health issues. One ship’s crew members said they “lost one person to suicide and a dozen other personnel suffered mental health issues over a 7 month period.”

Due to the high operational tempo of the fleet, the ship’s crews described “operating in dangerous conditions, with safety measures bypassed or ignored, and working 12-20 hours in port, canceling leave and also working long hours. hours to get maintenance. done along the way.

An investigation into the 2017 collision of the USS Fitzgerald guided-missile destroyer with a container ship off the coast of Japan found that crew fatigue from the ship’s high operational tempo played a role in the accident, which resulted in the deaths of seven sailors. Similarly, so did an investigation into the collision of the USS John S. McCain with an oil tanker near Singapore, which occurred just weeks after the Fitzgerald incident. Ten sailors were killed in the accident.

Meanwhile, junior staff said in the recent GAO report that they had received little training while “gaining higher status and not knowing what they were doing.”

Submarine crews have reported that so-called deviations from specification – changes to approved maintenance procedures – are also increasing in frequency. According to Navy data, from 2015 to 2020 they increased from 9% to 15% of all submarine fleet maintenance work.

Sailors also reported labor shortages resulting in days that “regularly exceeded 16 hours” and that “the hours of maintenance required exceeded the hours of a day”.

One ship’s crew reported 80 hours per week in port, which increased to 100 hours per week in preparation for deployment.

Navy sailors say they are understaffed, overworked and using 'band-aids' to get going
Ship’s Chief Chrislin Voltaire cuts Lt. Tyler Zamudio’s hair in the barber shop aboard the amphibious transport dock ship USS Somerset (LPD 25) November 13, 2018 in the Pacific Ocean. (US Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Lasheba James)

With regard to maintenance training, sailors describe it as often outdated or not corresponding to the skills actually needed on board a ship. “Ship crews are not taught how to maintain the equipment they are supposed to repair,” one comment read.

“Ships’ crews often learn incorrect or incomplete group knowledge that negatively affects their abilities to perform the job,” read another.

The report identified a general trend in the Navy dating back more than 20 years – shortening formal, instructor-led, hands-on training and becoming increasingly reliant on on-the-job training, even as crew sizes have been reduced.

Sailors also cited the lack of availability of formal training. Some sailors also said the training provided by the Navy was out of step with what they actually encounter aboard a ship, focusing on systems and technologies that are no longer in use. The result was sailors arriving on a ship with little practical knowledge.

A few crews even described having to “rely on social media to help with maintenance issues.”

Shortages of parts and materials were also identified as issues across the fleet: backorders of up to two years. Obsolete parts that need to be cannibalized from other ships. Use so-called ‘duct-tape’ and ‘bubblegum’ approaches to get ships under way.

“Crew members are just told to make it work,” one comment read. “It leads to swapping parts and improvising.” The Fitzgerald Inquiry found that the voyage management system, which aids navigation without paper charts, in the skipper’s cabin “was broken, so sailors cannibalized it for parts to help keep the system working. rickety”.

Navy sailors say they are understaffed, overworked and using 'band-aids' to get going
The USS Fitzgerald being towed into port.

Fourteen of the 18 shore maintenance providers also reported similar issues of parts and equipment shortages.

Some of the teams interviewed by investigators also spoke of the additional challenges of performing maintenance, from missing technical manuals to not accounting for the time required to complete additional tasks associated with maintenance.

For an understaffed vessel or an inexperienced crew member, what could be a three-hour task on paper can take twice as long.

Crews also described the common practice of using workarounds and “band aids” to complete tasks.

“Essentially, a commander doesn’t want the ship to be perceived by his superiors as the ‘ship that can’t start,'” read one comment from one submarine crew.

On another ship, “the high-pressure air compressors have been out of order for a long time. When a piston cracked in one of the compressors, management’s response to this problem for 3 years was to instruct the ship’s crew to use it sparingly.

Despite the hours spent on it and the lack of parts and equipment, the low priority of maintenance was also noted.

“Maintenance is usually not a priority for a ship’s management until management questions why maintenance is incomplete,” read one comment.

“Crew members often work Saturdays and Sundays to perform maintenance as it has been set aside given the additional duties they have to perform,” read another.

Long days, last-second workarounds, sifting through a parts list that contains 1,500 surplus and obsolete items and being told, simply, to “do it” are things that are certainly familiar to any member of the service. But this report describes a fleet with sailors seemingly pushed to their limits.

Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Michael Gilday told Task & Purpose he hadn’t seen the GAO report, but said “we don’t ignore maintenance.”

“We went from 7,700 days late to just under 3,000 [in private shipyards], and my goal is to get to zero,” Gilday said. “A lot of it is about investing money against the problem instead of postponing maintenance and walking away from it. So some of these issues that these GAO reports are looking for [at] a year or two years back. I give you data here and now. I put money against the problem. I will tell you that maintenance is funded at executable levels, as are training days and flight hours.

Jeff Schogol contributed reporting from San Diego.

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