Navy shipyard optimization must include a digital backbone

The U.S. Navy’s shipyards are facing significant challenges as they find both their technology and infrastructure outdated. The op-ed below discusses the Navy’s efforts to digitize processes and keep American military shipyards competitive on a global scale.

The US Navy’s race to modernize its fleet has put a strain on its public shipyards. In the op-ed below, Retired Adm. James Foggo says it’s high time his former service started emphasizing digitization from the outset so it can work smarter, not harder.

For the foreseeable future, the United States will not build more ships per year than China.

That’s the reality we face as we enter a new maritime era. Our adversaries are devoting enormous resources to close the capability gap, and in order to maintain superiority, we must both build as fast as we can, and maximize the maritime power of our existing fleet.

This will require us to lead both traditionally and in being more creative in developing new techniques. Mastering both of these will ensure readiness today and, in the future, readiness that will hopefully continue to deter large-scale conflict.

A major element of maximizing the power of our current fleet starts within our Navy’s shipyards. The Navy’s four public shipyards – Norfolk Naval Shipyard, Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, Puget Sound Naval Shipyard and Intermediate Maintenance Facility, and Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard and Intermediate Maintenance Facility – are essential elements of our national defense. These shipyards perform vital maintenance activities on submarines, surface combatants and, aircraft carriers – from overhauls to nuclear refuelings to refits. They are the foundation of ensuring our submarine and carrier fleet is modern, operational, and most importantly available.

But today our shipyards face a major challenge: they were built a long time ago, some dating back to the 1800s, and modernizing these facilities has taken a backseat to other priorities over the years. An August 2020 GAO report [PDF] found that maintenance delays on aircraft carrier and submarine repairs from 2015 through 2019 resulted in a total of 7,424 days that those vessels weren’t available for operations – the equivalent of losing half an aircraft carrier and three submarines each year. Just last month Rear Admiral Bill Greene confirmed that the Navy has 41 surface ships currently in a major maintenance period, with 100 more in planning, and is expecting a 36 percent on-time delivery rate in fiscal 2022, down from 44 percent in FY21.

These delays translate to significant reduction in deployed combat power. To close this gap, the Navy developed the Shipyard Infrastructure Optimization Plan (SIOP) in 2018 to reconfigure, modernize and optimize our four aging Naval Shipyards.

And while improving the physical infrastructure of these facilities will be critical to success, it’s equally essential that we take this opportunity to build the digital infrastructure required to accelerate our readiness advantage.

Digital Accelerants Across the Maintenance Lifecycle

Understanding the digital opportunity starts with understanding the maintenance lifecycle. When a vessel arrives at a shipyard it has needs: manpower, parts, services, repairs, modernizations, alterations and restorations. These activities require specific and often exotic materials, implemented as part of a defined process, driven and overseen by uniquely skilled operators.

This is an incredibly complex task. Every station within a shipyard tackles a different component of the project. It’s a multi-step process executed by several different teams. The work planned at any given step is dependent on actions completed in previous steps, as well as the availability of required services and parts. Any misalignment across people, material and process will result in delays. The three major challenges to efficiency include:

  • Inefficient workflows: Sometimes the right person is not available or doesn’t have the right materials at the right time.
  • Talent & training gaps: There’s a dearth of skilled maintainers needed to perform these incredibly unique tasks.
  • Oceans of data: Maintenance solutions are hidden in vast quantities of historical repair information that is unstructured and time-consuming to locate and use.

The Navy is tackling these challenges across three SIOP lines of effort (LOEs): Drydocks, Infrastructure and Industrial Plant Equipment. And digital technologies are foundational to driving new levels of speed and efficiency across the maintenance lifecycle. Analytics, artificial intelligence and machine learning tools can be deployed to uncover critical insights, make data-driven predictions in real-time, and seamlessly share critical information across shipyard teams. These digital solutions serve as a force-multiplier, maximizing operator talent and empowering faster, smarter decisions for everything from keeping tabs on physical machinery performance to workflow efficiency.

Naval shipyards share many attributes with manufacturing facilities in the private sector, and companies have been deploying these technologies for years with dramatic results. A recent McKinsey study on the manufacturing industry found that leveraging digital technology across inventory management, labor productivity, machine downtime reduction, throughput increase, and forecasting accuracy drove 15 to 50 percent value gains in cost reduction and efficiency. That’s a significant gain and gives a sense of what can be achieved by employing digital technologies to improve traditional methods.

Put The Operator At The Center Of Optimization Efforts

Digital transformation will require an upfront investment, but the proven return on that investment (ROI) in terms of readiness gains make it essential if we’re going to be competitive. Beyond cost, perhaps the biggest barrier is trust. Operators and leaders have to trust that the technology will help drive mission outcomes. So, here are four recommendations for overcoming these barriers and seamlessly integrating digital within the broader SIOP strategy:

  • Dedicate 3 percent of SIOP budget to digital. A budget commitment at this level would not only be enough to achieve significant transformation goals but the ROI across efficiency and vessel availability would be game-changing.
  • Start with operator challenges and work back. Involve the maintainers from the outset. Talk to them about their pain points, deliver the training required to close skill gaps and focus on commercially available technology that can be customized for their unique needs.
  • Prove the value using existing and simulated datasets. At its core, this is a new relationship between the operator and the AI. The quickest way to establish trust is to showcase the power of the technology on an existing dataset that the operator uses every day. If one isn’t available, use simulated datasets to demonstrate what’s possible.
  • Do no harm. Ships and shipyards are complex environments with some of the most demanding physical, electromagnetic, and information security requirements in the world. Digital optimization must not be disruptive. Avoid ‘rip and replace’ of major data systems and focus on problem-oriented solutions that can be seamlessly integrated.

We must invest in a modern digital foundation for shipyard optimization that maximizes the operational value of our physical assets while empowering personnel to be as efficient, accurate and productive as possible. The stakes are too high to do anything less.

Shipyard optimization is an urgent national security need, but it also represents a once in a lifetime opportunity to truly modernize. Our adversaries are embracing sophisticated digital technologies across every aspect of defense operations, and maintaining our advantage requires technical superiority in every facet of readiness. We need modern shipyards.

James G. Foggo is a retired US Navy admiral, former commander of US Naval Forces Europe and Africa and commander NATO Allied Joint Force Command Naples. He is currently the dean of the Navy League’s Center for Maritime Strategy.

This article was written by Lee Ferran from Breaking Defense and was legally licensed through the Industry Dive Content Marketplace. Please direct all licensing questions to