The US Navy is not ready to repair ships damaged in a great power fight with China or Russia, watchdog reports

The Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS William P Lawrence in dry dock
US Navy Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS William P Lawrence in a dry dock.

  • A government watchdog reports that the US Navy is not ready to repair major battle damage.
  • The service put decreased emphasis on maintaining this capability after the Cold War.
  • The GAO argues that great-power rivalries in this century require a revival of this capability.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

The US Navy is not ready to do repairs on vessels damaged in battle with a great-power rival like China or Russia, a US government watchdog reported this week.

“The ability to repair and maintain ships plays a critical role in sustaining Navy readiness,” the Government Accountability Office said in a new report, but that critical capability is not currently where it needs to be, especially when it comes to fixing ships damaged in combat and getting them back into the fight.

The Navy has not needed to quickly repair ships damaged in a great-power conflict since World War II, when warships were less advanced and complex than today’s modern vessels and the US had a much more robust industrial capacity.

After the end of the Cold War, the service shifted its focus from wartime repairs to peacetime maintenance, reducing the number of public shipyards and divesting of some of its important naval repair assets.

“The rise of 21st century adversaries capable of producing high-end threats in warfare – referred to as great power competitors – revives the need for the Navy to reexamine its battle damage repair capability to ensure it is ready for potential conflict,” the GAO report said.

USS Fitzgerald
US Navy guided-missile destroyer USS Fitzgerald after colliding with a Philippine-flagged merchant ship, June 18, 2017.

The watchdog added that “depending on the nature of the conflict, the Navy may not be able to rely on additional ships to replace damaged ones–making the need for battle damage repair capability all the more important.”

The Pentagon reported this year that China has the largest navy in the world, with an overall battle force of around 350 ships, including 130 major surface combatants. China is also the top shipbuilding nation in the world by tonnage, meaning it likely has the ability to rapidly build up its naval force or replace combat losses.

The US Navy has a proven, more capable but smaller force and produces ships at a slower pace, suggesting it can afford to suffer far fewer losses in a major conflict given the challenges the service faces to replace them.

Furthermore, the Navy’s regular maintenance capacity, which it would likely need to rely on to repair damaged warships in a conflict, has had problems for years, issues that have resulted in costly delays and serious readiness setbacks.

The GAO said that “battle damage repairs may further exacerbate” the “ongoing shipyard challenges to keep up with regular maintenance demand,” potentially making an already problematic situation worse.

Shortfalls in the Navy’s wartime battle-damage repair capabilities include the lack of an established damage repair doctrine, an unclear command and control, and an insufficient repair capacity, among other things.

Firefighters battle a fire aboard the US Navy amphibious assault ship USS Bonhomme Richard
Firefighters battle a fire aboard the US Navy amphibious assault ship USS Bonhomme Richard

Navy officials told the GAO that “the Navy could handle a single battle damage event,” but they were “uncertain how the Navy might handle multiple simultaneous or near-simultaneous events” like what the service would experience in a high-end conflict with a near-peer adversary.

In recent years, the Navy has experienced a few major unexpected repair situations in which a ship suffered severe damage. In 2017, the destroyers USS Fitzgerald and USS John S. McCain were damaged in collisions. The repair work took a couple of years and hundreds of millions of dollars.

Last year, the amphibious assault ship USS Bonhomme Richard, while pierside, was gutted by a fire. The Navy made the decision to scrap the ship rather than repair it.

The GAO report said that the Navy is still “in the early stages of determining how it will provide battle damage repair during a great power conflict.” In its report, the watchdog provided three key recommendations, most of which the Navy agreed to try to implement.

In the Biden administration’s fiscal year 2022 budget, the Department of the Navy’s $211.7 billion budget proposal placed less importance on ship, aircraft, and weapons procurement, focusing attention and resources instead on operations and maintenance, personnel, research and development, and infrastructure.

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