Attrition: SINKEX Goes To War

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February 10, 2022: The U.S. Navy has resumed holding damage assessment exercises to prepare for handling ships damaged in future combat. The first exercise was conducted while towing a burned-out amphibious ship to the scrappers. A battle damage assessment team was put aboard the ship to record damage as they would in wartime. The assessors had never been on the ship before and were able to perform a realistic assessment. The subject ship was destroyed by a shipyard fire in July 2020 and decommissioned in April 2021. These assessment drills will be held in the future during exercises as part of SINKEX operations.

For most of the last century the U.S. Navy has conducted SINKEX training. In the last two decades about two ships a year were sunk, most off the coast of California or Hawaii. SINKEX enables the navy to test new theories on how vulnerable, or invulnerable, modern warships are and how effective new, or current, weapons are. With the advent of smaller, cheaper, and more reliable sensors and broadcasting gear it's possible to get a lot more data out of a SINKEX target and monitor the damaged ship as it is hit until it goes under. This leads to changes in ship design and damage control techniques. From now on the ship to be sunk will first be damaged by a smaller explosion and a damage assessment team put about to assess the damage. After that the SINKEX will be completed using ship or aircraft weapons.

In the last few years, the navy has suffered several collisions at sea that required long repairs and it was realized that such damage would be common in any future war and the navy did not have as many repair facilities as in past wars. This made the return of trained damage assessment teams a necessity.

It was also noted that China, our most likely adversary, had no shortage of shipyards capable of making repairs. That is because China has invested a lot of money and effort into expanding its merchant shipbuilding industry, as a way to improve its warship building capability. In 2006 China produced about a quarter of the world's merchant shipping, while South Korea was in the first place, producing about a third. China made it to first place by 2020 largely by increasing orders for warships. China now has the largest fleet, in terms of warships, not tonnage. Chinese shipyards repair and upgrade warships as well as merchant ships.

By 1945 the United States had the largest fleet, and shipbuilding industry, in the world. Over the next few decades European and then East Asian took business away from the Americans with lower prices and better quality. By the 1990s China had entered the competition and had a hard time competing with South Korea and Japan, but eventually they did. The U.S. Navy is still the largest fleet in terms of tonnage but does not have nearly as much warship repair capacity as it would need in a major war.

The U.S. Navy is also behind schedule in completing planned maintenance, repairs and new construction shipyard work because of a shortage of ship yards and difficulty in finding qualified personnel. For warships you need shipyard workers to have special skills and qualified candidates are hard to find. Hiring temporary replacements means bringing in unskilled workers who can be trained for low skill jobs. Normally, some retirees could be persuaded to come back for an emergency but these experienced men are less and less available.

The navy did have a solution for this; the 2005 “SurgeMain” program where over 2,400 navy reservists were identified who had skills that could be used in the shipyards, where a lot of work was making major repairs on ships so the vessels can go back to sea. These are the kinds of repairs that the ship crew can handle but ships are brought into shipyards every few years so the many backlogged repairs can be done in less time because the ship is not at sea and most of the crew is not present.

In 2020 the SurgeMain program brought in 1,600 reservists but this only made up for about a quarter of the shortage. The labor shortage is also threatening some critical shipbuilding projects, like components for the new Colombia class SSBNs (ballistic missile nuclear subs) where construction of the subs is to begin in 2021. Before that a lot of key components were being built and work on these items had been delayed by the worker shortage. As it is the reservists were told that they could be on active duty for up to a year. The navy is still working on calculating how much the labor shortage will delay ships getting back to sea or even built.

Another problem with unskilled workers is accidents, some of them deliberate. For example, in May 2012 there was a fire inside the USS Miami (a Los Angeles class SSN or nuclear attack submarine) while it was in the Portsmouth (Maine) Naval Yard for maintenance and upgrades. That blaze did $400 million in damage to the sub and seven people were injured. Two months later a shipyard worker was arrested for setting the fire. The accused worker, Casey J. Fury, admitted that he set the May 23rd fire and another on June 16th, which was quickly extinguished, in order to get out of work early. Casey was seen near the June 16th fire and that led to his being questioned more closely. Casey knew he had a problem and checked himself into a mental hospital on June 21st and left on June 23rd. The question now arises as to how someone like this was allowed to work on a nuclear submarine. It could be sloppiness, union politics, or fear of federal regulations as in a growing list of questions you cannot ask when hiring people. The U.S. Navy has been complaining for a long time about incompetent management of naval shipyards. That bad behavior is protected by politicians more interested in reelection than well run yards.

Another solution, first adopted in 2009 was to reduce the number of days ships are at sea by a third, in order to reduce the wear and tear on its ships, and to provide cash and port time for needed maintenance. The days-at-sea problems began with the end of the Cold War in 1991, as the navy sought to maintain the same high tempo of operations, and even increase it. That meant sending carrier and amphibious task forces out to sea for six- month cruises to distant parts of the planet more frequently than before. After September 11, 2001, the tempo of operations increased even more, to support the war on terror.

To support all this on smaller post-Cold War budgets, the navy downsized. In the 1990s, the US Navy decommissioned over 300 ships. In 1990, the navy was still trying to increase its warship strength to 600. With the end of the Cold War, and the threat of the huge (but now disintegrating) Soviet fleet, there were suddenly more crises and hot spots the navy felt it had to deal with. While only about a quarter of all ships were at sea during the Cold War, in the 1990s about a third were out there. This put more strain on sailors, as marriages fell apart and sailors got tired of the constant stress of sea duty.

In response, the navy has focused on building new ships that used 50-80 percent fewer sailors. This is not as extreme as it sounds, for commercial ships have been doing this for several decades. But the smaller crews have not arrived yet, because the new ships have proved too expensive to build. Meanwhile, the navy was putting off doing a lot of ship maintenance, especially stuff that requires replacing lots of parts on engines and other mechanical and electrical systems. The result has been more ships failing inspections and having problems while at sea. The decision to cut days at sea, and catch up on maintenance, makes sense.

All these earlier problems, and their solutions led to the realization that there were not enough shipyards, qualified workers and damage assessment capabilities to deal with the problem.

 


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