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Memo: Paint Cuts Endanger New UK Subs

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

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Widespread corrosion on a brand-new generation of UK military submarines may be tied to a cost-cutting decision to minimize or skip the protective coating on the subs, according to a leaked government memo.

The leaked memo by a Ministry of Defence senior analyst, obtained by The Guardian newspaper, reports a “lack of understanding and negligence towards the corrosion related issues" involving the UK’s new Astute class boats, which are being built by BAE Systems.

The Guardian obtained the memo after an investigation by the newspaper concluded that the new £10 bn ($15.9 billion US) fleet of hunter-killer subs is “slow, rusty, [and] leaky.”

The newspaper said that the first sub in the series “has been unable to reach its intended top speed” and “has been beset by design and construction flaws that have raised doubts about its performance and potential safety.”

HMS Astute

Ministry of Defence/PA

HMS Astute, the first of seven new hunter-killer submarines, has shown widespread corrosion and a variety of other problems during sea trials. The Ministry of Defence says the issues are normal.

Among the new subs’ many cited problems: widespread corrosion and a variety of apparent QA lapses.

'Teething Problems'

A ministry spokesman told the paper that the first sub had suffered some “teething problems” during trials.

However, the ministry said in a statement: "All Royal Navy submarines are subject to a continuous, thorough assessment of their components to minimize the risk of corrosion. Cosmetic problems with the paint finish inside HMS Astute and HMS Ambush were identified and rectified."

‘Keep Painting to a Minimum’

The new divulged memo, whose author was not identified, was sent June 20 to Dr. John van Griethuysen. The Guardian said van Griethuysen “reports directly to the head of submarines, Rear Admiral Simon Lister.”

The memo reviews four documents related to the subs and notes a number of concerns involving the painting protocols and decisions. The author warns that short-term cost-cutting will backfire with long-term increased maintenance and repair.

“Has the objective been the prevention of corrosion in submarine components or was it just a cost-cutting exercise?" the memo asks. "It seems a decision has been taken to keep the painting to a minimum in Astute class build to reduce costs?"

Lack of Paint, Poor Surface Prep Cited

Among the issues cited:

  • Corrosion is afflecting valves and pipe work fittings, “mainly due to the lack of or inadequate paint application for the protection of fasteners and flanges. From the photographs ... witnessed, the corrosion is widespread and a cause for major concern.”
  • Paint is flaking from various surfaces, including pipes passing through the reactor compartment, “due to inadequate surface preparation.”
  • Paint in multiple designated wet areas was either not applied at all or was inadequately applied “for no doubt various reasons.”

"Has the Astute project team found out what these various reasons are?” the official writes. “No effort has been made or there is no recommendation to find out how this Quality Assurance failure had occurred, who was responsible for such quality failure and more importantly how to avoid such QA failures in the future.”

USS Vandenberg
Barbara Weibel

A 2008 report by the National Surface Treatment Center called improper application of coating systems a major contributor to the U.S. Navy's ship maintenance costs. In 2009, the rust-ravaged USS Vandenberg was scuttled off of Key West, FL, to become the world's second-largest artificial reef.

  • The Paint Schedule contains a “lengthy list” of “items not to be painted,” the author reports. But that list “contains items that are should [sic] have been painted.”
  • “Proper advice on various materials to reduce corrosion is given in Defence Standards and clearly this is a case that such advice has been ignored,” the memo says. A decision not to paint certain components goes “against the advice provided in Defence Standards.”
  • At one point, Ministry staff determined that corroded fasteners would be replaced, but that decision was later reversed in favor of cleaning and painting the fasteners. The memo says that cleaning “would be a difficult task” and would not allow paint to adhere properly. Improper painting, in turn, would allow the corrosion to continue to spread, the author argues.

The author says the memo was prompted by his or her “concerns of the QA failures, general attitude towards QA, and the lack of understanding and negligence towards the corrosion related issues.”

The author alleges a “severe lack of quality control” in the sub program, including the painting decisions, with consideration given only to short-term costs and deadlines. The author urges a comprehensive investigation and review of the program before more boats are launched.

The memo concludes: “The project is in a hurry to stick to the schedule get the boat finished and.[sic] I do understand cost implications due to any delays but finishing a submarine, which would be corroding inside will cost the MoD through out its life!”


Tagged categories: Coating failure; Corrosion protection; Flaking; Maintenance coating work; Marine Coatings; Surface preparation; U.S. Navy

Comment from Tom Schwerdt, (12/6/2012, 4:05 PM)

Hmmmm.... sounds very short-sighted.

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