Ship Maintenance and Modernization with the USS George Washington

USS George Washington
USS George Washington
Twenty-five years might sound like a long time for a warship to be in service, but it is only half of the average aircraft carrier’s lifespan. When an aircraft carrier reaches this age, it exits active service for a few years to be completely overhauled and brought up to modern standards. For nuclear-powered aircraft carriers such as the USS George Washington, which re-entered service in May 2023, this years-long, intensive ship maintenance procedure is known as a Refueling Complex Overhaul (RCOH).
The refueling and overhaul process involves extensive ship repair and maintenance. These processes bring these ships up to modern standards and ensure they can continue to serve the needs of the US Navy and our country’s overseas allies for further decades to come. In this article, we will explore this process and use the example of the USS George Washington to gain a greater understanding of the complexities and challenges of ship modernization.

What is a midlife Refueling Complex Overhaul?

Midlife refueling and overhaul is an essential process every US Navy aircraft carrier will undergo to extend its service life, ensure that its capabilities are in line with modern standards, and enhance the efficiency of its shipboard operations as well as the safety of its crew.

The midlife refueling process involves inspecting the shipboard nuclear reactor to ensure it can continue to operate safely for the second half of the ship’s life and replacing the spent nuclear fuel with fresh fuel. The reactor compartment also undergoes extensive overhauls to update, repair, and refurbish critical systems as needed. The end result is that the ship’s reactor functions like new.

What happens during midlife ship repair and maintenance?

A typical midlife ship modernization process will go through every part of a ship with a fine-tooth comb—from its hull, mechanical, and electrical systems to its combat systems, IT systems, and living spaces. The modernization process for an aircraft carrier includes:

  • Inspections, repairs, and upgrades to propulsion systems, power generation, and distribution networks.
  • Modernization and refurbishment of shipboard combat systems, such as radar, weapons, and communication systems. Upgrading systems to the latest standards ensures the carrier remains effective against modern threats.
  • Upgrades and improvements to the carrier’s flight deck, catapults, and arresting gear to accommodate new aircraft types and improve efficiency.
  • Reinforcements to the ship’s structure and replacements of any components exhibiting wear.
  • Modernization of the carrier’s software and IT systems to enhance cybersecurity, operational efficiency, and interoperability with other naval and allied forces.
  • Upgrades to the crew living spaces, such as berthing areas, galleys, and recreational facilities.

The process of vessel maintenance and modernization for an aircraft carrier is an extensive operation that requires the hard work, expertise, tenacity, and teamwork of thousands of people – from the shipbuilders to the ship’s crew, to suppliers and government partners up and down the supply chain. These ship modernization and maintenance processes deal with every part of the ship, inside and out—and so it should come as no surprise that these procedures are multi-year affairs.

How long does ship modernization take?

The typical mid-life ship maintenance and modernization procedure takes about four years of intensive work. For the average aircraft carrier, midlife overhaul and modernization means replacing and repairing hundreds of tangs, thousands of valve, pump, and piping components, and countless other components across every inch of the ship—representing millions of man-hours of work. However, when severe issues arise in the midlife overhaul process, it can end up taking much longer.

How long did the USS George Washington’s midlife overhaul take?

The refueling and overhaul process for the USS George Washington was anything but typical. While work began in 2017 and was projected to end in 2021, supply chain issues, labor challenges, industrial base issues, and unexpected repairs, led to the process going two years over schedule and ending in 2023.

The problems were myriad. Some parts of the ship had to be cannibalized for other carriers in need of repairs and overhaul. Work that was done incorrectly had to be redone. Inspection during the ship’s overhaul also revealed that the quality of life onboard was significantly under par. All these factors required even more intensive repair work than usual.

As a result, the USS George Washington’s mid-life RCOH was particularly challenging. In total, the aircraft carrier’s midlife refueling and overhaul took 2,120 days, or nearly six years—two years behind schedule.

Lessons Learned From the USS George Washington’s Refueling and Overhaul

Most aircraft carriers take only four years to undergo their rigorous mid-life ship repair and maintenance procedures. However, as the story of the USS George Washington demonstrates, these expensive, labor-intensive, and highly complex multi-year operations can run over their deadlines and budgets just like any shipbuilding project.

The US Navy is using the lessons learned from the USS George Washington to avoid similar ship maintenance issues in the future, such as:

  • Expanding their rotating pool of parts on hand to feature more long-lead material to minimize the need for growth work.
  • Moving up ship inspections to allow more time for engineering and scheduling.
  • Implementing new technologies, such as 3D scanning, to streamline inspection.
  • Changing shipyard contracting structures from cost-incurred payments to progress payments tied to schedule performance.

Why Reliable Suppliers Matter In the Shipbuilding Supply Chain

An aircraft carrier is over one thousand feet long and has thousands of valves, pipes, screws, electrical wires, and other small yet critical parts. But ships come in all shapes and sizes, and it isn’t just nuclear-powered aircraft carriers that need modernization and maintenance to extend their operational lifetime.

Whether you’re helping a Nimitz-class aircraft carrier prepare for its next quarter-century of service or upgrading and maintaining a support ship, frigate, or service vessel, having a partner you can trust makes all the difference. Reliable suppliers help you navigate the shipbuilding supply chain to secure the parts you need on time and keep your operations on time and on budget.

While having a supplier you can trust doesn’t solve all of the potential problems that can arise in ship maintenance and modernization, it does help keep your projects on track by reducing downtime and rework, providing high-quality military-specification parts at competitive prices, and giving technical support that helps your operations sail smoothly through challenges that arise throughout the vessel maintenance process.

As a valve manufacturer and distributor, Dante Valve has decades of history supplying US Navy shipyards with the highest quality mil-spec valves and an unwavering commitment to swift and reliable customer service. Request a quote for naval or commercial valves, fittings, and flanges today—and discover the Dante difference.

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