NORFOLK -- The Navy is making major changes in the way it inspects ships for readiness by doubling the frequency of inspections, changing the timing, and switching the way it assesses results.
The changes will require two inspections in a five-year period instead of just one and will time the primary inspection to correspond with a ship's deployment, when it is already in prime condition. Both measures are aimed at reducing the pressure on the crews and commanders and ensuring that the results accurately reflect a ship's condition.
The idea, said Rear Adm. Robert Wray, president of the Navy's Board of Inspection and Survey, is to return the inspection process to "come as you are," rather than making it an event that ships spend months or even years preparing for.
"The goal is to make this a standard part of a predeployment preparation," Wray said in a telephone conference call with reporters Friday. "What we want to do is ... build in the inspection as part of the life of the ship."
Ship inspections, which go by the acronym INSURV, are a painstaking and complex process involving a team that reviews the conditions of hundreds of systems onboard a ship, from its weapons to its propulsion system and utilities.
Originally mandated by Congress in 1882, the inspections were long a measure of whether a ship was still seaworthy, Wray said. In 2000, the grading system changed to numeric scores for various functions with an ultimate result of fit or unfit. From 2007 to 2009, the Navy deemed ships fit, degraded or unfit. In recent years, the categories changed to satisfactory, degraded or unsatisfactory.
Now, each ship will receive a grade on a scale of 1 to 100, like an academic exam, Wray said. The number will not indicate a passing or failing grade, but it will rank the ship's condition.
"We will literally be able to rank a ship against other ships in its class," Wray said, adding that this would allow a ship's commander "more information on trends."
The changes, many of which are in effect, come at a time when the Navy is trying to recover from a spate of negative inspection results in 2008, when six ships were deemed unfit. The numbers of failing ships have decreased in recent years, with only two -- the destroyer McCain and the submarine Hampton -- flunking their inspections in 2012. Another five of the 33 inspections resulted in degraded status, he said.
Often, a negative result costs the commanding officer his job, making the inspection a cause of great stress on personnel. Wray acknowledged that the stress would often cause ships to request delays in inspections and sometimes to seek external -- and possibly costly -- help to prepare for them.
Sailors say the buildup to an inspection is grueling. Weekends off and leaves are canceled, and workloads are increased for months on end. In addition, because of shortages in manpower or parts, sailors and experts say, ships preparing for inspection often "cannibalize" from other ships to make sure they are fully operational.
"There is the added pressure of an up-or-down grade, and only doing it every five years, I think, there is more pressure to cannibalize from other platforms and spend more money to get ready for inspection," said retired Vice Admiral Peter Daly, who is chief executive officer of the U.S. Naval Institute and former deputy commander and chief of staff of U.S. Fleet Forces Command in Norfolk.
"It has been driving the behavior of the fleet -- postponing inspection and then spending a lot of money to get ready for them. It was always supposed to be 'come as you are,' " he said.
"This goes back to the spirit of the pre-2007 inspection system -- trying to get to 'What is the condition of the ship?' " Daly added. "Instead of a big pass/fail grade, we are saying, 'This ship is very complex; we need to understand all the issues, and we are going to do it more often and change the behavior of the test-taker from one-strike-and-you're-out.' "
Wray said the new inspections will include the grading of more assets. The main pre-deployment test will be conducted by Wray's command and the midcycle inspection handled by a mix of INSURV inspectors and others from a ship's type command.
Wray said there is no increase in funding to match the increased workload, but the board will add 13 inspectors, to bring the total to 80.