In March 2005, “Cost Overruns, Budget Uncertainties Hurting USN and Contractors” noted:
“With the help of a $50 million grant from the state of Louisiana, Northrop Grumman has modernized production at Avondale, and the company is now projecting completion of future amphibious ships at a much faster pace than in the past. Nevertheless, scathing Navy inspector general reviews that detailed shoddy construction and basic workmanship problems at Avondale are cause for legitimate concern in areas that will not be fixed by modernization alone.”
While some teething problems are not uncommon for first ships of a new class, LPD-17 San Antonio stands out for their number and severity. All in a ship whose costs rose from about $700 million when the program was sold to over $1.7 billion – and have stayed at that drastically elevated level through subsequent vessels. Worse, the nitial ship of class failed to complete a series of sea trials in late March 2007, and could not be sea-tested during a 5-day inspection period because one of its two steering systems completely failed. Navy inspectors found major defects in 3 of 17 categories, and the ship required millions more in repairs.
In August 2008, after 2 failed INSURV inspections and 2.5 years after the Navy officially accepted LPD 17 from the contractor, the first San Antonio Class ship was deployed on an operational mission. Whereupon it sprung oil leaks, and had to dock in Bahrain while a large team examines its problems and searches for a fix…
According to San Antonio Express-News, the San Antonio’s problems began on the drawing board. Specifically, in a computer design program dubbed 3D CAD, which was touted for its ability to give three-dimensional views but was reportedly not up to the task of designing an entire ship. Annual attrition rates of 35% or more during construction were also unhelpful, but the bottom line remains the ship’s quality.
That workmanship has been an issue for some time, and leads to legitimate questions concerning the Navy command’s acceptance of the ship from the contractor.
The ship failed 2 successive Navy INSURV inspections, before it was passed and readied for deployment with the Iwo Jima strike group in August 2008. Virginia Pilot’s “New Navy ship San Antonio found to be rife with flaws” has further details regarding the March 2007 testing SNAFU. On June 30/07, the paper ran a follow-up article: “Navy ship $840 million over budget and still unfinished.” Key excerpt:
The ship lacks basic safety equipment, such as hand rails and reliable guns to battle close-in attacks.
In all, Navy inspectors found 30 major flaws aboard the San Antonio, according to an internal report obtained by The Virginian-Pilot…. The report reflects some of the same problems disclosed by The Pilot in July 2005. Two years later, the San Antonio is still incomplete and $840 million over budget [DID note: for a total of $1.7 billion – the same amount appropriated by the HASC in the FY 2008 supplemental for one more LPD-17 class ship].... Secretary of the Navy Donald Winter criticized shipbuilder Northrop Grumman Ship Systems for substandard work and, in a letter last week, questioned the future of amphibious and destroyer ship programs under contract with the company.
“By taking delivery of incomplete ships with serious quality problems, the Fleet has suffered unacceptable delays in obtaining deployable assets,” Winter wrote to Ronald Sugar, Northrop Grumman’s chief executive officer.
Two years after accepting the San Antonio, “the Navy still does not have a mission capable LPD ship,” Winter wrote.”
The article goes on to add:
”....In March 2006, chief of naval operations Adm. Mike Mullen also attacked Northrop Grumman over its work quality. The average cost per ship has risen 50 percent over original estimates, according to the Navy…. The worst problems were in the propulsion, auxiliary and aviation systems. Nearly two-thirds of those serious problems were discovered during an earlier inspection, reported as fixed, but still existed during the later check.
The second ship in the amphibious class, the New Orleans, has fewer problems but was still incomplete when accepted by the Navy, Winter wrote to Northrop Grumman. The company’s “inefficiency and mismanagement of LPD 17 put the Navy in an untenable position,” according to Winter.
He has assigned a deputy to perform quarterly reviews on the shipyard and all ships under contract with Northrop Grumman.”
A Failed First Deployment
LPD 17, Dockside USA
Subsequent ships of the San Antonio Class have passed inspections, though USS New Orleans [LPD 18] has noted significant issues of its own, and has yet to deploy on a mission since its March 2007 commissioning date. USS Mesa Verde [LPD 19], which was built in a different shipyard, sailed through its initial inspections with flying colors.
USS San Antonio continued its long streak of poor performance, however, during its first operational deployment to the Persian Gulf in 2008. On Oct 9th and 17th, leaks were discovered in the pipes that deliver lubricating oil to the ship’s 4 diesel engines. The fault is classified as hazardous, because the leaks drip flammable oil into open spaces. On Oct 31/08, therefore, the ship was forced into to a Bahraini shipyard for at least 2 weeks of repairs. When the ship pulled in, it was greeted by a crew of 30-40 engineers, pipefitters and welders flown to Bahrain from the U.S.
Engineers are conducting a root-cause analysis and the repair and estimating/ working on fixes, some of which require replacing whole sections of pipe. Something one might expect on a very old ship – but not on a new one. Even the Navy’s INSURV inspectors may not catch those kinds of very basic workmanship issues, unless they’re visually obvious.
Captain Jan van Tol (ret.) has commanded US Navy ships whose cruises were interrupted by major breakdowns, but said that this crew’s size was notable. Gannett’s Navy Times quotes him:
“It surprises me to see oil leaking from such major points. I associate leaks with moving parts…. What’s unusual is the sheer number of people who are going out to address what appears to be a wider-ranging problem…. Are these systemic problems in one or more of the ship’s systems and physical plant? If they are, that goes to the question of craftsmanship and why did the Navy accept the ship? Are there ship-wide problems of a similar nature of poor craftsmanship and quality assurance? Who made the decisions to allow it to reach this point?”
Former 3-star vice-admiral Rep. Joe Sestak [D-PA] looked at the verified but unofficial photos of the problem, and seems to be thinking along similar lines:
“I expected to be handed machines of war that had a certain level of readiness I then had to maintain…. Something could break. But I never expected to deploy with a machine of war, particularly a relatively new one, that had systemic problems that would take weeks at a time [to fix]... When it’s something that appears systemic to the construction… we’re giving short shrift to our warriors out there…. I’d like to go back to ‘What are the institutional processes that permitted this to happen?’.... and find out how this can be done better. I have proposed that we should have hearings on acquisition reform in the new session, with LPD 17 part of that.”
During a speech at the CSIS thin-tank, Navy Secretary Donald Winter noted that he remained unsatisfied with the USS San Antonio’s performance, and promised “an appropriate course of action ahead” without mentioning any specifics. Given the Navy’s acceptance of the ship, however, his options are limited.
HMLMS Rotterdam LPD
Winter did make an invidious comparison to the quality he has seen at Hyundai Heavy Industries in South Korea, however, which builds over 70 civilian ships per year as well as South Korea’s destroyers and amphibious assault ships. That competitive status was contrasted with American shipbuilding’s monopsony, in which the government is often the only major buyer and market forces are not really at work.
Which may indeed be part of the larger problem. Meanwhile, the Navy’s immediate problem involves resolving the quality issues with almost $4 billion worth of amphibious ships, which form a significant fraction of its future amphibious assault capability. Even as other shipbuilders around the world seem quite able to build capable, modern LPD ships at a lower price per ton.