The U.S. Navy has discovered “aggressive” corrosion in Austal Ltd.’s first new combat ship designed for operating close to shore, according to a new report.
The corrosion is in the propulsion areas of the USS Independence, the Littoral Combat Ship built by Mobile, AL-based Austal Ltd., a subsidiary of Australian defense contractor Austal and General Dynamics Corp.
|The future USS Independence begins Builder's Sea Trials in the Gulf of Mexico in July 2009.|
“This could be a very serious setback,” Norman Polmar, an independent naval analyst and author in Alexandria, VA, told Bloomberg. “If the ship develops a serious flaw, you’re not going to continue producing them.”
Permanent repair will require drydocking the ship and removing its “water jets,” a key component of the propulsion system, the Navy said in a written statement to congressional appropriations committees provided to Bloomberg News.
Second Ship, Second Problem
Aluminum-hulled ships such as Austal’s tend to rust faster than steel-hulled ships, Polmar said. “But I’m surprised it happened so early,” he told the news service. “This ship is brand new.”
The discovery of the corrosion was the second blow in three months to the Littoral Combat Ship program. In February, the first ship in the program—built by a different construction team—developed a six-inch crack three and a half feet below the waterline, the Navy confirmed.
The crack, in a weld seam between two steel plates in the hull, allowed water to enter a void space. The ship was forced to abort sea-keeping trials on Feb. 12 and return to its homeport of San Diego for repairs, Naval Sea Systems Command told Navy Times.
The ships were to have lasted 25 years, the Navy had said.
The fast-track $37.4 billion LCS program, begun in February 2002, “represents a significant reduction in time to acquire, design and build ships in comparison to any previous ship class,” the Navy reports.
The LCS was intended to be “a fast, agile, focused-mission platform designed for operation in near-shore environments, yet capable of open-ocean operation.” The shallow-water trimaran design is aimed at clearing mines, hunting submarines, fending off terrorists on fast surface craft, and defeating pirates.
“The Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) is a relatively inexpensive Navy surface combatant equipped with modular ‘plug-and-fight’ mission packages,” the Congressional Research Service reported to Congress in April.
The class consists of two very different versions—Freedom and Independence—designed and built by two industry teams, led by Lockheed Martin and General Dynamics, respectively.
The Independence, with a primarily aluminum design, is the larger variant: 419 feet long, with a 103.7-foot beam.
The first ship, USS Freedom (LCS 1), was delivered to the Navy on Sept. 18, 2008. That ship was the one that developed the crack. In August 2010, the General Accountability Office said that “early deployment” of the ship had limited its availability for operational testing.
The second ship, USS Independence (LCS 2), was commissioned Jan. 16, 2010. It developed the corrosion problem.
The program has had a messy contract history as well. In 2007, after unsuccessful efforts to convert cost-plus to fixed-price contracts, the Navy terminated contracts with Lockheed Martin and General Dynamics for what would have been LCS 3 and 4.
In 2009, fixed-price contracts were awarded to each prime contractor. Each company has been awarded a fixed-price, 10-ship block buy—a total of 20 ships from FY 2010 to FY 2015.
A Pentagon report released in April said officials were concerned about the potential for corrosion during construction of the ship because of “dissimilar metals,” particularly near the steel propulsion shafts.
Temporary repairs will allow the ship to operate safely now, and the corrosion damage will be permanently repaired next year, the Navy told Bloomberg News. The Navy did not estimate the repair costs.
The LCS program “was intended to create a new generation of affordable surface combatants that could operate in dangerous shallow and near-shore environments, while remaining affordable and capable throughout their lifetimes,” reports the respected Defense Industry Daily. “It hasn’t worked that way.”