By Nick Adde, Special Correspondent
Originally published in SeaPower magazine, May 2019. Reprinted with permission. (seapowermagazine.org)
Before taking the job of managing the Navy’s supply system, Rear Adm. Michelle Skubic had the chance to share her ideas for its improvement with Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John M. Richardson.
The CNO listened during that February 2018 conversation as Skubic described a system that had languished in key areas. Some problems were due in part to well-intentioned policies that did not work as planned, she said. Materiel support for what she calls “the industrial mission of the Navy” was a key concern.
Last July, when Skubic became the first woman to assume their command, she was given the opportunity to begin implementing the changes she deemed necessary to move Naval Supply Systems Command (NAVSUP) and Chief of Supply Corps onto a course that would foster timely delivery of materiel and services to the Sailors and Marines in the fleet who relied on it.
“From my observations, we had hollowed out the materiel support mission of the industrial missions, and it was costing timeliness and accuracy of support,” Skubic said.
[NAVSUP] includes 11 commands, situated both in the continental United States and around the world. Skubic is responsible for its 22,500 military and civilian employees.
[Further, as Chief of Supply Corps], she must ensure that the 2,200 active-duty [Supply Corps officers] are professionally developed, trained and positioned in billets that have what she calls the greatest impact and ability to sustain readiness for both the Navy and joint commands. Likewise, she oversees the nearly 20,000 enlisted Sailors in supply ratings – logistics specialists (LS), culinary specialists (CS) and ship’s servicemen (SH). (She noted that the ship’s serviceman rating is about to undergo a name change – to retail specialist – to describe the jobs they perform in terms that parallel those performed by their civilian counterparts.)
Both NAVSUP and the Supply Corps are [half the size] as they were when Skubic joined the Navy a little more than 30 years ago. As such, she said she believes there is added emphasis on ensuring that her charges are placed in assignments where they can have the greatest impact.
The Navy’s industrial depots – fleet readiness centers, aviation depots and public shipyards that perform maintenance in surface vessels and submarines – had a need to complete their work and return ships and planes to the fleet more quickly.
“I thought we needed to bolster Supply Corps presence inside these industrial depots, in order to have a stronger voice at the table in crafting better materiel support toward solutions that would bring ships and aircraft out to the fleet on time and ready to serve,” Skubic said.
Improvements in operational planning would accomplish the goal, Skubic believes. As such, she has pushed for incorporating and reinforcing it in all levels of training and education under her command. Additionally, Skubic stressed the need to improve and streamline the contracting process.
“We must know how to use all the tools in our toolbox more effectively, for putting contracts together quicker and putting more strategic contracting solutions together,” Skubic said. Doing so, she believes, would foster better readiness in the long run.
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Rear Adm. Skubic gives a speech during a Women’s Equality Day celebration on Naval Support Activity Bahrain. –photo by MC2 Samantha P. Montenegro
Skubic also is an advocate for a stronger voice in the joint-logistics community from the Supply Corps.
“We are often the flag community with the largest footprint in the joint-logistics arena. Right now, five of 10 flag officers in the Supply Corps are usually positioned in joint commands,” Skubic said. “They make a difference – on behalf of both the Navy and our joint warfighters.”
Within a matter of weeks after presenting these points to Richardson, the CNO offered Skubic the chance to implement her ideas. Immediately after assuming command, she began addressing areas of priority: focus on people, recovering readiness, embracing reform and getting after Navy audit.
“[Former Defense Secretary James N. Mattis] had a mandate to get after 80% mission capability for our strike fighter fleet. This falls in line with our directive, with a focus on recovering readiness,” Skubic said.
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Rear Adm. Skubic addresses the audience during a NAVSUP town hall. –photo by Dorie Heyer
Several past tours with the fleet reinforced to Skubic the concept that NAVSUP does not exist if not for serving the fleet needs. She has been working closely with Vice Adm. DeWolfe Miller III, the commander of Naval Air Forces, to address aviation readiness and “all things F/A-18.”
The collaborative effort has included meetings with Vice Chief of Naval Operations Adm. William F. Moran and the fleet four-star commanders. The conversations address ways to improve materiel support, the reliability of weapons systems and readiness numbers.
“It’s been a tough and important road for us to take together, as we’ve tried to fill in some of the gaps that have occurred over the last several years. We’ve had to expose our individual and collective weaknesses and risk areas, so that we could improve production control, materiel support and the timeliness of finishing maintenance,” Skubic said.
In some instances, she said, positive results can be reached through simple deck-chair rearrangements, such as making sure that members of different teams – engineers, weapons-support specialists, personnel specialists and technicians – are moved to where they need to be co-located.
“We [can] correct misinterpretations and draft solutions faster. It’s very powerful in its simplicity. We’re seeing results,” Skubic said.
She cited the effort to reduce the time it takes to complete aircraft maintenance projects more quickly than what they refer to in [aviation maintenance] jargon as “84-day specials.” With a concerted effort, Skubic said, some work is being completed within three days. Observations of recent activities have repeatedly concluded successfully. The three-day goal, she said, is “sustainable.”
At the depot level, the goal is to reduce extended-maintenance times to 60 days, down from 120 to 150 days. The effort has shown promise, Skubic said.
“Again, this is very focused teamwork producing this result, with aircraft flying that much quicker,” Skubic said.
Implementation of this collaborative enterprise, known quasi-officially as the Navy sustainment system, Skubic believes that the disciplined focus on production control it entails is producing quantifiable results.
“There’s a unity of effort. Our teammates across the board are seeing an opportunity to contribute to solutions that make a legitimate, positive impact on readiness,” Skubic said.
In turn, the gain in readiness is fueling teammates to continue to progress.
Like any good management team, Skubic and her team leaders move people in and out of key positions, with the intent of minimizing the potential for burnout. Also, they have taken the lessons they have learned through the process with F/A-18s and applied them to other weapons systems.
“Those other systems aren’t suffering at the expense of the F/A-18s. They are sharing in the goodness of our learning experience,” Skubic said.
From a standpoint of acquisition reform, Skubic is approaching solutions by taking a hard look at the way her organization is organized to succeed.
“NAVSUP has taken actions to reestablish our physical presence inside of those shipyards and aviation fleet readiness centers. This has been necessary because of decisions in the past that were made with noble intent but have had unintended outcomes,” Skubic said.
She cited a past decision to outsource some work to third parties such as the Defense Logistics Agency (DLA).
“DLA is a wonderful joint command that supports readiness throughout [the Defense Department],” Skubic said. “But when we did outsourcing with them, it created some unintended gaps and seams in materiel support for [Navy] industrial depots.”
Her goal is to reestablish Supply Corps and Supply Team presence on the Navy side of those depots, where the personnel “wear Navy nametags, speak Navy language and contribute to Navy solutions,” she said.
From the standpoint of risk management, Skubic said the Supply Corps is working to come to terms with the long-term effects of the drawdown in billets and the closures of facilities under base realignment and closure. The upshot is jobs that must be performed by fewer people with less experience than before – which in turn contributes to gaps in service to the Supply Corps customers, she said.
“We’re finding ourselves in a position to try to overcome some of those decisions that were being made. That’s what our [enhanced] customer presence is trying to get after – to reestablish a formal Navy presence,” Skubic said.
She is overseeing an effort to work with suppliers under a formal program, in which her managers meet with senior-most civilians regularly to talk about performance, timeliness and missions.
The continued focus on fleet readiness will remain “critically important” to Skubic as she serves out the remaining [years] of her Navy career.
“Logistics can be a challenge during peacetime, at what we call Phase Zero. It gets significantly more complicated as you go kinetic – in humanitarian crises – and also in a fight,” Skubic said.
“We’ve got to put our attention into those operational plans - how we would resupply in the most challenging of circumstances,” she said.
Communications lines could be lengthy. Sailors would operate in areas in which they have never worked. Processes, stock positioning and team placement must be addressed so operations in the most challenging of circumstances can be sustained, Skubic said. She intends to see to it that logisticians will be prepared to respond if and when necessary.
“I have confidence in the NAVSUP team as well as the Supply Corps officers and enlisted located with the Navy and in joint organizations,” Skubic said. “They’re ready to serve–and sustain the fight. They’re ready for sea.”