A plan to refurbish the Navy's shipyards could cost billions of dollars more than expected, a recent report from the Government Accountability Office concluded.
Navy experts say the results show how some important public infrastructure projects have been neglected for decades, increasing the long-term cost of maintaining them.
The Navy's 20-year Shipyard Infrastructure Optimization Plan is meant to rebuild and modernize government-run shipyards at four U.S. ports where nuclear-powered submarines and aircraft carriers are repaired and maintained: Norfolk, Virginia; Kittery, Maine; Puget Sound in Washington state and Pearl Harbor in Hawaii.
The cost of the project was initially estimated at $21 billion. But researchers at the GAO concluded that the Navy underestimated the costs and risks associated with the plan, something that could leave the Navy with inadequate resources to carry it out.
"The Navy's initial cost estimate for the plan did not use certain best practices in developing the estimate, such as documenting key assumptions, accounting for inflation, and addressing risks that together could add billions to the ultimate cost," the GAO wrote in its report.
The GAO said poorly defined cost estimates threaten to lead the project astray. "Without high-quality estimates, agencies are at risk of experiencing cost overruns, missed deadlines, and performance shortfalls," the report says.
The shipyard challenges could present an obstacle to the Pentagon's stated national security strategy, which emphasizes competition with Russia and China for global military influence. Navy budget requests from recent years describe aging maintenance facilities that lack the necessary equipment to meet expectations, in some cases meaning that fewer ships and submarines are available for their assigned missions.
President Donald Trump said on the campaign trail that he would increase the Navy's ship count to 350 if elected president.
Although that goal is likely to be decades away, the Navy has made major acquisitions designed to build out its weapons capabilities. It recently finalized a $15.2 billion deal with Virginia-based shipbuilder Huntington Ingalls for two Ford-class nuclear-powered aircraft carriers, for example.
But the health of America's public shipyard infrastructure has often been neglected in favor of other spending priorities, naval infrastructure experts contacted by the Washington Post said. For example, the Trump administration diverted funding for the Norfolk and Puget Sound shipyards to pay for the president's border wall.
"If the U.S. wants to have the world's best Navy it needs to have the world's best Navy infrastructure," said Diana Maurer, defense capabilities and management director at the GAO.
Bryan Clarke, a Navy analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Analysis, said the Navy has done a good job of identifying what needs to be fixed. Finding the money for it is another problem entirely, he said.
Modernizing America's shipyards "will take more money and sustained effort than the Navy has currently laid in," Clark said.