Last month I visited Naval Station Norfolk, headquarters of the U.S. Atlantic Fleet. What I saw horrified me and reminded me of stories of the rusting Russian navy in the days following the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union. The streaks of rust symbolized the decay of our naval shipyards due to decades of neglect and budget misallocations combined with an inadequate workforce.
What I Saw: A US Navy Rusting Away
Ships such as the nine-year-old USNS Medgar Evers, named for the slain civil rights leader; the USS Arlington, an amphibious warship named in honor of those killed at the Pentagon on 9/11; and a Ticonderoga-class missile cruiser whose hull number was obscured sat rusting at the piers. They weren’t the only ones, but they were the most noticeable as I toured the base.
I’m not the first to notice this problem.
A friend and Navy veteran told me that he too had visited the base a few weeks prior and had seen what I saw. It infuriated him.
The Arleigh Burke-class destroyer USS Stout made headlines a year ago after returning from a long deployment encrusted in rust. Navy spokeswoman Cmdr. Richlyn Ivey blamed COVID for the increase in visible rust on U.S. warships in an interview with the military blog “Task and Purpose.” She claimed COVID resulted in decreased port visits during which the ships normally are painted.
A Sign of Decline?
Naval warfare commentator Chris Cavas has likewise documented the transformation of the U.S. fleet into a rusting eyesore. The U.S. Navy used to scoff at images of rusting Soviet ships as a sign of lagging seamanship and warfighting abilities.
“A service that once prided itself on looking sharp and being sharp has fallen by the wayside. For some years now normal exterior wear and tear on ships is left untouched or the haze gray is blighted by patchwork touchup jobs that sometimes render half a dozen shades of gray haphazardly close together,” Cavas wrote in a July 2019 “Defense News” column. “The dreaded “pinking” of paints introduced in the 1990s is being overcome, but ships don’t look any better unless they’re right out of the yard. Get too close to many U.S. Navy ships and rust streaks abound.”
Back in the early 1990s and in the Cold War that wasn’t the case, he said. He recalled visiting the late cruiser USS South Carolina as it was being removed from service. The cruiser was immaculate, Cavas said.
The U.S. Navy spent $3 billion on rust mitigation in 2014. Just as with the Soviet era, the Obama-Biden Navy has chosen to do things on the cheap and half-asked. Cavas noted the paint jobs he saw on the U.S. warships he observed were patchwork and incompetently done.
“We have to stay on top of it. We have to be willing to do the work necessary to limit corrosion on the ship. And it’s not just at the depot. It’s in intermediate maintenance and its with ship’s force. We have to recognize that this is a law-of-physics thing and stay on top of it,” Vice Admiral Thomas Moore, then commander of U.S. Naval Sea Systems Command told “Defense News” in 2019.
Moore served as an engineering officer on the USS South Carolina earlier in his career.
Moore blamed ship commanders for slacking on their responsibilities to keep on top of rust problems on their vessels.
Why Is This Happening?
A strong fleet must rest on a firm foundation. Dilapidated siding with peeling paint usually signifies a bad neighborhood and deeper problem. A rusting fleet symbolizes arrogance and a failure of leadership or at least a confusing chain of command that doesn’t impose discipline. A slacking ship captain who lets his or her ship rust clearly is not held accountable by their commanding officers.
Mismanagement seems to be the name of the game in today’s Navy.
The Government Accountability Office (GAO) found last year that the Navy improperly managed the workflow at its shipyards when it came to managing when its ships go in and out of maintenance. It also found that the Navy had only completed half of its planned measures aimed at streamlining its maintenance backlog and that it had not linked those measures to goals or action plans, Diana Maurer, director of Defense Capabilities and Management at GAO, said in Aug. 2020.
The Shipyard Challenge
Since the end of the Cold War, the Navy has gone from having eight shipyards to four. Its overall shipyard workforce likewise atrophied. At the same time, demand for drydock space to perform maintenance on the Navy’s warships has increased.
The Navy has struggled with bureaucratic red tape that has led to the maintenance backlog. Shipyards such as the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard in Washington state suffer from badly dated equipment that is in desperate need of replacement, Rear Admiral Howard Markle said in 2017 while he commanded the shipyard. Puget Sound Naval Shipyard is not alone. Facilities at the shipyard were built between 1900 and World War II. Budget cuts made upgrading and replacing the shipyard impossible.
Navy struggles with aged drydocks that are not suitable for maintaining the current fleet let alone the additional hulls called for by current law.
“These dry docks on average, as you know, are over 100 years old and we’ve neglected them for too long,” Chief of Naval Operations Michael Gilday said last year. “And this is a strategic decision by the department to make this a priority and put the money where we need to, or we can’t sustain the fleet of the future. As you know, we’re challenged to sustain the fleet that we have now.”
Virginia-class submarines, the newest class in the fleet, can’t be serviced in many of these older drydocks. Supply chain problems recently caused the USS Gerald R. Ford (CV-78) to cannibalize parts from the future USS John F. Kennedy (CV-79).
“Despite the increased number of shipyard workers and the anticipated improvements in productivity, CBO projects that the demand for maintenance over the next few decades will exceed the supply of labor in most years,” the U.S. Naval Institute reported the CBO as having said last spring.
This leads to having ships deployed longer, which has further negative costs because their replacements aren’t available. This taxes crews and ships alike.
The Senate version of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) adds $21 billion to the nation’s four public shipyards in Norfolk, Va.; Portsmouth, N.H.; San Diego, Calif.,; and Puget Sound to assist with modernization. A further $4 billion would fund repairs to naval vessels in the next fiscal year.
Congress must hold the Navy accountable for the mismanagement of shipboard repair, mismanagement of its shipyard maintenance schedules, and its shipyard staffing levels.
John Rossomando is a senior analyst for Defense Policy and served as Senior Analyst for Counterterrorism at The Investigative Project on Terrorism for eight years. His work has been featured in numerous publications such as The American Thinker, Daily Wire, Red Alert Politics, CNSNews.com, The Daily Caller, Human Events, Newsmax, The American Spectator, TownHall.com, and Crisis Magazine. He also served as senior managing editor of The Bulletin, a 100,000-circulation daily newspaper in Philadelphia, and received the Pennsylvania Associated Press Managing Editors first-place award in 2008 for his reporting.
November 23, 2021 at 11:28 am
As a retired BMCM (SW) who stayed on the waterfront as a tug Captain since 1996, I totally agree with the author. Ever since sailors in port could get a room in the barracks, pride of ownership and sense of responsibility have gone downhill. The lone exception in my port was the Amphibious ship that had a Bos’n. Those sailors were out there until sundown prepping, priming and painting. I used to regularly stop on the way back to the tug basin and give them a shout out about their hatd work looking good.
November 23, 2021 at 12:00 pm
Totally agree, but you might also add that the “New-Woke” Navy has plenty of money for sex changes and at least one sex change reversal. Those derelict Captains must have the same shortsightedness.
November 23, 2021 at 12:56 pm
As the 2nd DivO on one LSD and the First LT on two others (85-95) and I allowed my sides to look that bad, the old man would have had my a$$ and he would have been completely correct to do so.
November 23, 2021 at 2:47 pm
It’s due to over-taxing the ships with impossibly high deployment schedules with little to no in port time for routine upkeep and maintenence.
November 23, 2021 at 2:52 pm
There is NO excuse for dereliction of duty! Politicians be damned, the skipper and crew are responsible and should take pride! Cancelling leave would wake them up! We couldnt EVEN think of leave if our boat wasn’t 4-0 and the crew shining bright! Theres NO apparent pride in todays Navy. Sad and disgusting…you can DAMN sure bet China and Russia are watching our Navy scuttle ourselves to Davey Jones locker sir!
November 23, 2021 at 4:46 pm
Retired MRCS (SW) here. Could not agree more. The Navy really needs to get back to basics. Like pride in service. I work for a defense contractor and I visit ships often. One thing is really apparent is a weak CPO mess afloat and this isn’t just one ship I’m talking about. Top that off with doing away with top notch repair capabilities in the 90s and this is what you get.
November 23, 2021 at 5:00 pm
Obama-Biden Navy? Aren’t you forgetting the one President most responsible for the current state of affairs? If you want to be taken seriously you should probably skip the partisan hackery.
November 23, 2021 at 5:04 pm
I love how the author attempts to make this political, or make it seem as if it is a one party problem. The ironic part is that the quotes he uses throughout the article are from 2019. Was the “Obama-Biden Navy” doing things on the “cheap and half-asked” then as well?
November 23, 2021 at 5:16 pm
I served aboard two Destroyers in the mid 1960’s and I remember many times when the captain had crew members over the side chipping rust and painting, even in foreign ports, and shining bright work.. The only exception was during WESTPAC (Vietnam) cruises, and even then we were looking sharp when we returned, after the deployments, to Norfolk, our home port…
November 23, 2021 at 5:35 pm
The only time my ship ever looked like that was as it was being towed from the James River fleet to be scrapped. Another part of the shipyard debacle is the scrapping of all the tenders, save for the two sub tenders in the PACFLT. Repairs that could be done import or tied up alongside a tender while deployed are now being done in the yards. What a waste.
Sean R ONeill
November 23, 2021 at 6:00 pm
Let’s not forget. Our great country has been continuously at war for twenty years. This is not me making any excuses. But,maintaining weapon systems. And,the purchase of ordnance clearly took precedence. As the operating tempo begins to slow it’s time to polish what has been neglected. Because, it appears the tempo is about to increase exponentially in the next few months if Russia and China stop their saber rattling.
November 23, 2021 at 6:38 pm
Is there a “public” (Navy) shipyard in San Diego? I believe 4th US Public SY in is at Pearl Harbor, HI.
November 23, 2021 at 7:27 pm
As a former 1st Lt on 4 different ships, I’m appalled by this. I do know that today’s environmental restrictions are far more draconian….they do need to be relaxed to some extent
November 23, 2021 at 7:53 pm
Thanks for pointing this out. Pictures have been coming out the last 10 years with rusted ships like it’s the norm. Just did a read on the new paint the navy is using from 2012. More expensive but requires less maintenance and it seems like most of that maintenance is now done by contractors instead of the deck division. Times a changing.
November 23, 2021 at 10:31 pm
A lot of folks from the 1980s and 1990s Navy in here talking a big game. I recently retired, I was an engineer (MMCS). While some points are valid about lack of leadership and priorities, there is a lot more to the struggles of today’s Navy then just “weak leadership.” People forget that the Navy has been on a war time optempo for 20 years, they also forget the Navy changed its deployment cycle in response to the 9/11 attacks to make us more “unpredictable.” Where as a ship used to deploy 6 months, return home, and then build back up for deployment for the next 18 months, ships are in a different “ready” phases, which created a snowball effect of ships leaving avails incomplete. The GOVERNMENT also failed to fund upgrades in equipment and shifted more and more to subcontractors to the point where many parts are simply no longer available. Oh, did I forget to mention that we haven’t had a real budget since 2012, so commands are playing tightwad with the money they do have? Don’t forget that thanks to NAVOSH and the amount of layers of rules we have put in place, it literally takes a whole day to get paint, that must be returned by the end of the workday. And the request to paint has to go through 3 different departments.
Oh, and don’t forget we use garbage paint now because of “environmental hazards” so even the paint in the ER doesn’t last.
You can whip the crew all you want, but the truth is your Navy is tired. From top to bottom. CVN75 is a great example. Excellent ship, excellent crew, has been deployed 3 of the last 5 years? Not 6 month port hopping parties either, 8 or 9 month, combat, maybe a port a month deployments. These Sailors are busting their asses, and getting kicked in the teeth for it. Leave? Haha, they’ve continually extended the use or lose qouta every fiscal year because no one can take leave in the first place.
There are leadership issues, there are weak commanders, there are accountability and pride problems, but the root is at the top not the bottom. For you 1990s guys, it was the DIVOs you trained that made it to the top and started making these piss poor decisions. Pretty sure all the Fat Leonard era big wigs were 80s and 90s ensigns. Just sayin.
November 24, 2021 at 12:20 am
Do this story again when you have been at sea with no port call and no contact with anyone for a year and a half on back to back deployments. They just got home and there are more important matters than a little rust on the ship. Why don’t you do a story on the suicides in the millitary or the pay? Just a option.
November 24, 2021 at 12:49 am
I retired as a Command Master Chief in 1996 after 4 tours – two on ships a Top Gator and an Aegis Cruiser (both of those ships got “Battle E” every time while I was onboard). We spent time making sure the ship not only looked good but the rust under the paint was gone before we painted, we never painted over the rust. OPTEMPO was fast and furious on the Gator, almost always out of homeport. The Cruiser was a precom so we were out and in a bunch testing and proving her as well, but maintenance was never skipped. You do what is needed, not what you can!
November 24, 2021 at 1:02 am
As noted by Ed K – there is no Naval Shipyard in San Diego – #4 is Naval Shipyard Pearl Harbor – you couldn’t get that correct, so how much of the story is actually accurate? You get pictures of ships returning from lengthy underway periods? Or possibly after having had to anchor in several different locations over a period of time. I can honestly say I sailed on several different kinds of ships, but the one thing that happened on all of them when we had lengthy periods between port visits – anchor, and paint and get ready to enter the next/home port – no one pulled in looking like a dump.
And say, if you sail SE Asia used to be plenty of ways to get the ship painted by entrepreneurs who loved brass while you were enjoying liberty.
Me thinks the author is full of it – he’s certainly no Sailor – just looks at ships and assumes.
May 30, 2022 at 10:31 am
The US Navy ships in the 1970’s were first prepared with a coat of Red Lead, and 117, before oil base paint , I help paint the USS Sperry , and the USS AO-148. These products were strong, yet by today standards , not political correct..
November 24, 2021 at 1:25 am
Went into the navy in 1983 aboard the Uss Lexington the oldest air craft carrier in the Navy. Half the time we were underway in and out of port. The time we were in port we always had sailors cleaning and painting the hull, within days of pulling in the main hull was cleaned and repainted. We also used diffrent types of paints and primers and under less regulations on how we cleaned and types of paints we used. We use to scrub running rust off using chemicals witch i am sure not used anymore. Some of the problem could be the fault of the crews of these ships but not all.
November 24, 2021 at 1:51 am
This article neglects to mention that Trump was Commander and Chief for 4 years while the ships were rusting. Wonder why? Look at the author’s bio. Pandering crow.
November 24, 2021 at 6:31 am
I would guess that the rust is a result of cost-cutting due to the budget sequestration. The US armed forces just don’t have as much money as they did in the 80s, 90s and early 2000s. So they have to cut corners to pay for more important things. The rust is, after all, just a cosmetic issue unless they allow to get to far out of control. Do you want to pay higher taxes to solve the problem?
November 24, 2021 at 7:11 am
As someone who is a BM2 actually in today’s navy and proudly painted the sides of the ships, and supervised painting the sides of the ships from 2015-2020. It is defeating and degrading to make assumptions about work ethic and our need to be properly disciplined based on trivial thoughts about what we are or are not doing to maintain the sides of the ship. Unless you are currently in today’s navy, know what the manning of a ship’s deck department is like, what the current workload’s are, and accessibility to the materials needed your comments about “in my day” are not needed. There are sailors missing out on time with loved ones, working through meal hours, and with little to no breaks. To paint the sides of the ship is a job done with pride and often with little to no praise. If the appearance of a ship bothers you I encourage you to volunteer your time alongside my brothers and sister in the fleet by joining our ranks, and joining my rate. I am thankful for the Boatswain’s mates that went before me however we have the watch now, and we are doing our damn best.
November 24, 2021 at 7:53 am
The US Navy is a part of the armed forces of a political subdivision (no longer a nation) that has a political class that is entirely corrupt. That includes the politicians that run the Navy, the Flag officers who get their pictures taken, and the up-and-comers who want to make a buck. The civilian defense contractors are focused on their own seat polishing, and get well paid despite the poor output of their efforts. All the players are happy with the current, declining state of affairs, and no positive change should be anticipated.
Our military is an expensive joke. There is no real intent to protect and defend the old Constitutional Republic, and less pretension about it every day. If you are thinking about joining, don’t. If you are in, get out. If you are one of the corrupted mutts (all flags, most O5-6, most E7-9) then you should properly be ashamed. There is no need for an enemy to sink the US Navy, we are doing the job ourselves.
November 24, 2021 at 8:51 am
Wow! I’m 75-80 gator and FF bilge rat. Spent 3+ years out of 5 deployed across the pond and down in the tropics. Rarely did I see the rust stains we see today on our very expensive ships. Blaming someone else is easy in today’s finger pointing mentality and I’m sick of it.I used to polish the intercoolers until I could see my face in them and every pipe and engine/generator looked brand new.Take care of your tools and they take care of you.Just sayin.
November 24, 2021 at 9:47 am
We’ve reached the end of empire. We’re too overstretched, with not enough money. Let the Germans and French worry about Putin, we have other problems.
November 24, 2021 at 10:11 am
You can be sure that as I write, the NAVY, in a politically motivated act toward “inclusiveness”, is desperately looking for incompetent, unstable, transgender, captains, to command these rusting, garbage scowls, as a disciplined, up to date, Chinese navy, patiently awaits their arrival in the pacific.
November 24, 2021 at 10:25 am
The Independence Class LCS are not rusting and are performing great in the SC sea. The Freedom class is a disaster. Additionally capabilities have been given to the Independence class and her huge flight deck is getting a workout.
November 24, 2021 at 10:45 am
The entire country is falling apart. It is not just infrastructure. When you see the rot (literally) visible even in our elite military units, you know that this country has slid very far down the path of decline.
It was the hypothesis of Tainter’s “Collapse of Complex Societies” that collapse occurred when societies found the cost of maintaining “complexity” to be too much and no longer worth the effort. They let the most complex things go, and settled back into a simpler (and poorer, and less powerful) state. We are seeing this unfold in real time, before our eyes.
If we can’t even properly maintain our naval ships, let alone build enough new ones on a reasonable schedule, then we have no business going on with the false bravado about fighting the Chinese halfway around the world and off their shores.
November 24, 2021 at 12:27 pm
It also has to do with OSHA from what I have been told. They can’t chase rust like they used to in port anymore. Its now usually done in the Yards, by GVT Contractors. Also the paints, and non-skid is more environmentally friendly. So its more susceptible to the environments. Yes gone are the days of Deck swarming over a ship to chip and paint in port or underway. I myself served in Deck from 96-00,on the USS Shiloh CG 67. And if we weren’t on watch in port or underway,we were chasing the rust, and chipping paint. That also was in between GQ, Flight Ops, and other drills. Wasn’t uncommon for us to work 18-20 hrs days. I hear those days are gone too.
November 24, 2021 at 2:53 pm
They will all be painted pretty. Pinks, Rainbows, and unicorns for the new navy fashion show.
November 24, 2021 at 2:58 pm
In the USN on destroyers in the 1960s. We had bigger crews then. All the guns had to have crews and ammo handlers from the magazine up. That meant 1st Div was bigger, more GMs, More FTs, and so on. Every time we came to port, even in 7th Fleet, the paint was touched up. Todays ships have smaller crews and a destroyer today has twice the tonnage, a bigger hull to take care of.
Another problem was the Peace Dividend after the 1st Gulf War. Congress acted like the end of the USSR meant no more war. Congress would rather use tax money to buy votes with unneeded programs rather than spend it on defense.
Lucius Severus Pertinax
November 24, 2021 at 3:06 pm
The Navy, with the Government’s help, needs to re-learn how to party like it’s 1945….
November 24, 2021 at 4:51 pm
I agree with My Rossomando.
The rust is the neighborhood broken windows on steroids.
It is a sign of a deeper problem
The lack of focus, accountability and warrior ethos in the Chain Of Command cost us the the Bon Homme Richard.
That is the end result, the money from Congress will help but Navy Leadership needs to take a good look at itself; it has to be the best for our nations sake.
November 24, 2021 at 6:33 pm
The major problem is the decline of leadership in all the services. This has been in parallel with the social engineering that has occurred since the Carter maladminstration. The military long ago ceased to be warrior society.
The next serious war will see the US defeated because of the woke nonsense that has permeated the military.
November 24, 2021 at 7:08 pm
And they will blame it on someone else QM.
November 24, 2021 at 10:07 pm
We would paint the pierside of the Enterprise at a moment’s notice in Alameda. More than once on an Alpha Working Party, I spent hours with a fire hose sinking the overspray to avoid that unsightly mess for the dignitaries…
We are in the early stages of ‘post-war optempo’ and hopefully soon to be out of COVID protocols.
Frankly, with the SCS, this would be an optimal time to re-engage Philippines or VietNam for port services and take care of some of this stuff. Pierside for 2-3 weeks and you have something painted top to bottom and, well, a crew that is delighted about the friendliness of the people out in town.
We can’t blame this on non-availability of shipyards. There are other tried and true solutions out there.
Have you seen the Chinese Fleet? Including Coast Guard? There is a perception issue if we can’t look sharp.
I’m not going to cast aspersions or lecture on leadership or the ‘New Navy.’
We are out of the horrible optempo for a small time prior to the next ‘thing.’
It wouldn’t hurt if we cut down on some of the pie in the sky stuff, and like CDR Salamander points out. And get back to the business of War at Sea. Unmanned project vessels and conceptual proving… okay great.
We have another existential event coming. Probably sooner than later. If we don’t get a quick rest and get busy, it’s just going to be that much harder. A drawdown would only multiply the issues.
Brian C Reeves
November 25, 2021 at 7:31 am
Back in ’66 when I joined the Navy I was told that if something moved I should salute it and if it didn’t move I should paint it. Looks like lots of movement going on…
November 26, 2021 at 6:47 am
If i were China I would sabotage just a single US shipyard on the west coast and the Navy would be screwed. Im sure they could do this very easily without much effort. Perhaps a disgruntled worker or sailor that needs a few hundred thousand $$ or maybe even a few million if thats the going rate. IDK. What I do know is that if i were Beijing I would be ALL over this idea.
November 27, 2021 at 11:01 pm
Retired for 40 years so I am not new in watching the military. What is happening now is overwork of the military with to lean a force and to high a tempo of operations. Don’t blame the enlisted servicemen, they have been abandoned by congress and their leadership.