NORFOLK, Va. — The U.S. Navy is all in on its “get real, get better” approach to improving fleet readiness by using data to identify root problems as well as solutions.

Several ongoing efforts that leverage data analytics — including the Performance to Plan and the Naval Sustainment System efforts — seek to “embrace the red” and tackle them head-on. But how are these data-driven endeavors shaping the fleet?

Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday talked to Defense News on Feb. 4 about several ongoing efforts.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

You’ve talked about manning shortfalls, particularly at-sea billets. Where is the Navy in looking at that problem?

We really started to take a deeper look at leveraging data analytics, much like we did to get to get Super Hornet readiness in a better place, much like we’re doing with respect to shipyard availabilities and delay days, both in the public yards and in the private yards. We’ve taken that same approach to manpower. It’s allowed us to take a look at what barriers we have to knock down in order to increase our numbers at sea, what levers we can pull to accelerate progress.

What we’ve seen over the past year is we’ve cut our gaps at sea about in half. In October 2020, we were at 12,000 or 13,000. By January 2021, we were about 10,000. And now we’re about 4,000. So 4,000 would be the numerator; the denominator for total billets at sea is about 145,000.

It’s a very small percentage that we’re trying to whittle down, but we’re really trying to drive that — you’ll never get to zero, but I would like to drive it below 1%.

Shortly after you took command as CNO, you called for getting to zero operational days lost to ship maintenance delays. You’ve made improvements with your data-driven approach, but you’re not at zero. Where are you today?

We’re still not where we want to be. We’re still going to be around 2,000 days in 2022. But we’ve also changed the software that we use to plan these availabilities.

You’ve probably heard me say this before: One of the things that data led us to conclude is that probably up to about 30% of our delay days are based on poor planning and poor forecasts. Many of those delays are the result of new work and growth work that wasn’t identified upfront in planning. Those are the two biggest variables to drive down, particularly the growth work. Some of the new work — in some cases you could defer it, some of it you can’t. But the growth work certainly drives us crazy.

In what areas are you not using data analytics but would like to?

In the cyber force. We’re just now taking a look at cyber readiness with respect to our cyber teams and how we can apply data to improve our readiness. It’ll be very interesting because measuring readiness in cyber teams is a bit different than measuring readiness in a ship.

You stood up a new unmanned task force at the Pentagon. What will it do?

Deliver something within the Future Years Defense Program and get after something fast that we can scale. I don’t want to keep on reaching for the perfect solution. We’ve got to experiment and be iterative and then commit to something.

I like some of the other things that we’re doing in the [CNO’s Navigation Plan]. As an example, there were some things we’re doing like getting after ship delay days, or even getting after gaps at sea where there are core root problems that you need to correct. There are others like Project Overmatch or unmanned where it’s much more of a “build a little, test a little, learn a lot” kind of approach. They’re different approaches to solving problems. But with unmanned, it’s much more learning as you go.

The Navy shifted its stance on unmanned surface vehicles: Rather than hurry and move into a program of record, the service is more focused on enablers now and only moving into a program of record when the technology is more mature. What is driving that change?

With respect to unmanned, we’ve got to have a proven concept, a proven design and a proven capability before we scale. If we don’t, we’re just going to create more problems for ourselves.

I spent Feb. 3 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, at the old Philadelphia Naval Shipyard, and part of the day I spent at the DDG-51 land-based engineering sites, and they reaffirmed my belief that we need to do a lot of shore-based prototyping before we scale. The prototyping that’s been done up there over the last 40 years, I think the success of the DDG-51 program is grounded on that. We saw what happened with the littoral combat ship, with the Zumwalt-class destroyer and the Ford-class aircraft carrier when we didn’t use those land-based facilities, and it has cost us. And with LCS, it continues to cost us.

Our approach needs to be to measure twice and cut once, with respect to unmanned, or we’re going to find ourselves — potentially if our eyes get bigger than our stomach — buying a platform or platforms that don’t meet our needs.

What do you wish more people knew about the Navy?

I don’t know if people have an appreciation for what we’re doing on a day-to-day basis; you know, [with] 100 ships out there at sea.

I can’t talk too much about what’s going on in the European theater right now with Ukraine, but we’re out there in the 5th Fleet area of responsibility, in the Western Pacific. Given the number of ships that we have, I really do think that we are in very, very high demand. People see the value of the Navy.

I spend much less time now defending aircraft carriers than in previous years. I think people understand that everything is vulnerable in a world of hypersonics, but they [aircraft carriers] are still the most survivable airfield we’ve got. Maybe we don’t do as good a job as we should at conveying what we’re doing on a day-to-day basis.

Megan Eckstein is the naval warfare reporter at Defense News. She has covered military news since 2009, with a focus on U.S. Navy and Marine Corps operations, acquisition programs, and budgets. She has reported from four geographic fleets and is happiest when she’s filing stories from a ship. Megan is a University of Maryland alumna.

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