BREMERTON — Secretary of the Navy Richard Spencer visited the Puget Sound area Tuesday to visit Navy facilities and related industries in the Pacific Northwest.
The Kitsap Sun spoke with Spencer for a few minutes about the possibility of a larger Navy fleet and the future of Puget Sound naval installations before he jumped on a plane back to Washington, D.C., on Tuesday afternoon.
Spencer was sworn in as the 76th Secretary of the Navy on Aug. 3. Spencer served in the U.S. Marine Corps as a helicopter pilot until he was honorably discharged at the rank of captain in 1981. After his military service, Spencer went on to a career in the private financial sector, working on Wall Street at the helm of various investment and venture capital firms.
Spencer arrived on Sunday and toured Boeing facilities in Renton and Everett on Monday before visiting the Vigor Shipyard in Seattle. Spencer stopped at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island on Tuesday morning before touring the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard and Intermediate Maintenance Facility.
Spencer has been an advocate for increasing the Navy’s fleet size to 355 ships as outlined in a December 2016 force structure assessment, up from the current fleet size that ranges from 270 to 290 ships.
“The 355 fleet size is a goal we want to attain,” Spencer said. “The question is how and when.”
The targeted fleet size calls for increasing the number of active-service aircraft carriers from 11 to 12 and the number of attack submarines from 48 to 66. Spencer did not yet know if that meant additional subs or carriers would be homeported at Naval Base Kitsap.
“The placement of them obviously takes a lot of thought and consideration because it involves quite a lot of infrastructure,” Spencer said.
Spencer said an increased fleet size will likely result in more homeported guided missile destroyers at Naval Station Everett.
Rumors have swirled about recommissioning the former USS Kitty Hawk to bring up the number of aircraft carriers in the fleet up to 12, but Spencer said that would be unlikely.
“The business case for the Kitty Hawk would be a fairly big stretch,” Spencer said.
The Kitty Hawk was the last conventionally powered aircraft carrier in active service in the fleet. The ship was decommissioned at the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard in 2009 after 48 years of active service, and it has been held in reserve status ever since. It is currently slated for dismantling.
“The only project that we have that has some activity going on is bringing back the Perry-class frigates, possibly,” Spencer said.
The Navy would have to balance the cost of bringing additional ships into the fleet while addressing aging infrastructure problems that are beginning to impact fleet readiness, according to a Government Accountability Office report published in September.
“There’s only so many dollars in the pocketbook,” Spencer said. “We’re going to be working with Congress to obtain the resources necessary to both increase readiness and build out the fleet size.”
The GAO report found the four Navy-operated shipyards, including Puget Sound Naval Shipyard and Intermediate Maintenance Facility, are in “poor condition” and are “struggling to meet the Navy’s current needs.”
Addressing the four shipyards’ more than $4.8 billion backlog of maintenance and restoration work will be a top priority for the Navy, Spencer said. PSNS alone has $1.42 billion worth of delayed work.
“We have world-class workers working in facilities that I will say are probably not-world class in some ways,” Spencer said.
Across all four shipyards, pieces of equipment such as “shipyard cranes, sheet metal rollers, plasma cutters, and furnaces” have surpassed the average 15-year service life, creating “impediments to efficiently and effectively completing repair work,” the GAO report found.
At PSNS, only 29 percent of maintenance work has been completed on time since 2000, with a quarter of work completed more than 70 days behind schedule. This backlog has resulted in more than 4,700 lost operational days for nuclear-powered aircraft carriers and submarines.
Resolving this backlog is crucial to fleet readiness of any size, Spencer said.
“The ability for us to have regular availabilities, and have the ships come in at a regular, known time so we can relieve crews and manage our deployments all figures into both readiness and quality of life, so we have to address this,” Spencer said.
As it currently stands, none of the Navy’s four shipyards have the dry dock capacity to perform maintenance work on the new nuclear-powered Ford-class aircraft carriers, which could cause even further maintenance delays in the future.
PSNS has the only dry dock on the West Coast capable of conducting maintenance on the current Nimitz-class aircraft carriers. The dock would need substantial utility upgrades for both electrical and seawater services before a Ford-class carrier could dock at the shipyard for maintenance.
Spencer did not say if the Navy currently has plans to upgrade the dock.
Spencer said one of the main challenges facing shipyard upgrades is the age of the facilities, which are all more than a century old. The Navy reported to the GAO that approximately 70 percent of shipyard properties have a historical designation, which increases the cost of maintenance and modernization work due to preservation requirements.
“We struggle with the fact that we’re trying to run this as an institutional organization, but we have historical buildings that we aren’t allowed to adjust,” Spencer said. “The cost of having to maintain and or develop enhancements in a historically protected building is really a constraint.”
Spencer said the Navy was currently conducting a review of maintenance needs to determine project funding prioritization.
“We have to prioritize, but ship availabilities and the ability to manage maintenance are key components that affects everything,” Spencer said.