A new GAO report finds critical problems at the Navy's shipyards, including here. Fixing them will take time, funding and, especially, focus.

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In August, the public affairs office of the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard trumpeted the completion of a major overhaul on the supercarrier USS John C. Stennis, finished five days early. It’s the kind of complex work the Navy depends on from its four public shipyards, including the one in Bremerton (officially the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard and Intermediate Maintenance Facility), which is also one of the region’s major industrial employers.

But earlier this month, the federal General Accountability Office released an extremely critical assessment of the shipyards, saying they fail to meet the Navy’s modern operational needs and are in bad shape. “Navy data show that the cost of backlogged restoration and maintenance projects at the shipyards has grown by 41 percent over five years, to a Navy-estimated $4.86 billion, and will take at least 19 years (through fiscal year 2036) to clear.” The GAO study was first reported by the Virginian-Pilot newspaper.

This is especially disturbing news at a time when the Trump administration is using much more bellicose language toward North Korea than its predecessors, from the president’s threat of “fire and fury” to National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster talking of “preventive war.” Tensions with China continue to rise over Beijing’s assertiveness in the East and South China seas. In a conflict, ships would be damaged or lost. And the yards lack the ability to support the 355-ship Navy promised by the president (today the number is around 276).

All the shipyards are at least a century old — Puget Sound traces its history back more than 125 years. The others are in Norfolk, Va.; Kittery, Maine, and Pearl Harbor.  They are what’s left of 13 shipyards the Navy operated. In Kitsap County, the naval shipyard is one of the largest employers. In fiscal 2016, it employed 13,425 civilians and funding was $1.95 billion, according to the GAO.

The Puget Sound Shipyard has been praised for safely decommissioning nuclear-powered vessels. But, according to the GAO, like its siblings it faces tremendous challenges because of age and lack of investment to keep facilities up to date. For example, “Three of Puget Sound’s six drydocks and one of Norfolk’s five drydocks require the use of superflooding as a workaround to service the Navy’s current fleet of submarines.”

The report continues, “According to shipyard officials at Puget Sound, superflooding can result in the flooding of drydocks’ electrical and service galleries, which were not designed to be flooded and therefore have to be repaired because of rust and seawater corrosion.”

Seismic risks were another problem identified, where a 7.0 magnitude quake could damage the only naval drydock on the West Coast. In many cases, capital equipment is aging. In addition, “In fiscal years 2000 through 2016, 54 of 76 maintenance availabilities were delayed, resulting in 4,720 lost operational days for nuclear powered aircraft carriers and submarines.”

The Navy has been working to improve its shipyards, but obviously a bias for more action is needed. This isn’t sexy like a new aircraft carrier. But in a real way, the shipyards are the backbone of the fleet.


Today’s Econ Haiku:

The tax overhaul

Now deficits don’t matter

They’ll strip US for parts


This post has been updated to remove an earlier reference to defueling nuclear aircraft carriers. None have been defueled at the Puget Sound yard yet.