Home Americas US Navy not ready to repair battle-damaged ships, government watchdog says

US Navy not ready to repair battle-damaged ships, government watchdog says

USS John S. McCain collision
USS John S. McCain (DDG 56) is loaded onto the heavy lift transport MV Treasure following a collision with a commercial tanker in 2017.

Should the US Navy engage in a contest with a near-peer adversary, like Russia or China, it would not have the capabilities to restore its battle-damaged ships to an operational status, a report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) said.

There are several challenges that the present regular maintenance capability would face during a great power conflict, including the lack of established doctrine for battle damage repair, unclear command and control roles, and a shortage of repair capacity.

According to GAO, the navy has not needed to triage and repair multiple battle-damaged ships in quick succession since World War II. After the end of the Cold War, the navy divested many of its wartime ship repair capabilities, and its ship maintenance capabilities have evolved to focus largely on supporting peacetime maintenance needs.

As noted by GAO, the rise of 21st century adversaries capable of producing high-end threats in warfare revives the need for the navy to reexamine its battle damage repair capability to ensure it is ready for potential conflict. The 2017 National Security Strategy stressed the importance of the military developing capabilities that are able to counter the rise of great power competitors such as China and Russia. Those capabilities include ship repair for maritime warfare in the modern era.

It should be noted that the navy has faced persistent challenges in conducting regular maintenance on its fleet during peacetime, in part because of the modern warships’ intricate electrical, radar, and computer systems that did not exist on World War II-era warships. This makes damage assessment and repair of modern ships significantly more complex.

The GAO report was published as the navy is in the early stages of determining how it will provide battle damage repair during a great power conflict. Eight organizations are responsible for the navy’s 15 battle damage repair planning efforts, however the service has not designated an organization to lead and oversee these efforts. Without designated leadership, the navy may be hindered in its efforts to address the many challenges it faces in sustaining its ships during a great power conflict.

In light of the findings, GAO is recommending the navy secretary (SECNAV) to designate an organization with the appropriate authority to lead and oversee development of the service’s battle damage repair capability, as well as an organization to develop and issue guidance that clarifies command and control responsibilities for executing battle damage repair. Additionally, SECNAV should establish guidance that requires the navy to periodically assess and update, as appropriate, ship vulnerability models to ensure these models accurately reflect the ship’s mission-critical systems and inform battle damage repair planning efforts.

The full report is available here