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Probe Demanded in Warship Problems

Thursday, July 7, 2011

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Is the Navy’s newest warship “disintegrating?” Or will a few “simple fixes” for a “design issue” keep it and its successors afloat?

That depends on whom you ask. And one Republican congressman is demanding answers.

 Duncan D. Hunter
Rep. Duncan D. Hunter (R-CA) wants an immediate formal review of the LCS program.

Rep. Duncan D. Hunter, a House Armed Services Committee member whose district includes the ship’s home port of San Diego, told Navy Secretary Ray Mabus in a letter July 1 that the Navy should rebid the contracts for its next-generation Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) program, following disclosures of corrosion and a crack in the program’s first two ships.

‘Formal Review’ Urged

“I strongly urge the Navy to immediately conduct a formal review of the entire LCS program, provide an assessment of the technical design flaws of the current fleet, and determine the best way forward to include the possibility of rebidding this contract so that the program can be put back on a fiscally responsible path to procurement,” said the letter, which was reported by The San Diego Union-Tribune.

The scathing letter accuses the Navy of “rushing through design planning and testing” and notes that the cost of the ship has already doubled, from the original $220 million, and is expected to reach $653 million by FY12.

LCS has been a fast-track program, with concerns raised previously about the potential for galvanic corrosion in the Navy’s first aluminum-hulled warships.

‘Yet Another Setback’

Hunter’s letter follows reports of aggressive galvanic corrosion in the propulsion areas of the Independence-variant LCS-2, which was commissioned in January 2010.

Short-term repairs are being planned, and a permanent fix—installation of new coatings and a cathodic protection system—will require dry-docking the vessel next year.

Testing and dive inspections have “revealed aggressive galvanic corrosion pitting” within all four water jet tunnels of the LCS-2, a congressman says.

Hunter’s letter calls the corrosion “yet another setback in a long line of contracting, design, and testing failures. “

LCS Builders

The LCS-2 was built by Austal USA and General Dynamics. The partnership later split, putting the two companies in competition for future contracts

A spokesman for Bath Iron Works, owned by General Dynamics, has said that the corrosion was spotted before the Navy took delivery of the $432 million, 417-foot-long ship in January 2009. Later that year, Austal USA was awarded a $3.6 billion contract for the rest of the 10-ship deal.

Austal initially downplayed the corrosion and denied responsibility for the problem, laying the blame on Navy maintenance and operations. But the company now says it is working with the Navy to resolve the problem

The LCS-2 disclosures followed reports of very different problems with the steel-hulled Freedom-variant LCS-1, which has a far different design

That ship, built by Lockheed Martin, sustained a six-inch hull crack below the waterline, requiring a return to port for repairs. In 2010, the General Accountability Office said “early deployment” of the LCS-1 had limited its time for operational testing.

Report: Ship ‘Disintegrating’

In a new report on the controversy, Wired magazine says that the LCS-2 is “‘aggressively’ disintegrating” and experiencing severe design and technical problems.

Prominent defense author Eric Wertheim told the magazine that the problem “reflects poorly on the entire LCS and Navy acquisition process, rather than just Austal.”

The report also raises the possibility that competition between General Dynamics and Austal USA, “America’s newest warship-builder,” may have had a role in bringing the problems to light.

Aggressive Pitting Cited

Dive inspections and ultrasonic tests have “revealed aggressive galvanic corrosion pitting within all four of the water jet tunnels and water jet cone assemblies,” Hunter’s letter says, according to the Union-Tribune.

“This would come as a surprise if the Government Accountability Office (GAO) had not previously warned Congress in 2007 that the Navy had moved forward on an ambitious schedule despite significant design stabilization problems.

“Their report warned that ‘construction work has been performed out of sequence and significant rework was required, disrupting the optimal construction sequence and application of lessons learned for follow-on vessels in these programs ...’ In pushing a faulty design, blame falls squarely on the shoulders of the Navy.”

‘A Design Issue’

The Navy and other analysts downplay the LCS problems.

“It’s typical of what happens when radical concepts are introduced for the first time,” defense analyst Loren Thompson, told the Press-Register of Mobile, AL, where Austal USA’s shipbuilding has made it the town’s largest employer. “Some simple fixes should allow the Austal version to go forward.”

Chris Johnson, a spokesman for the Naval Sea Systems Command, has told congressional appropriations committees that the problems are not catastrophic, the newspaper said.

“You have to realize, from the Navy’s perspective, the first ship of any class is a prototype,” Johnson told the newspaper. “You build it, you start testing it, you find what works and what doesn’t work. ... We found a design issue, and we’re working to correct it.”

Jay Korman, of the Avascent Group, told the newspaper that the controversy “gives fodder to people who for so long have said that buying an aluminum ship would be problematic for the Navy. It’s a perception issue as much as structural issue.”

Navy Supports Program

Mabus did not respond publicly to Hunter’s letter, but the Navy Secretary has been fully supportive of the LCS-2 program.

 Ray Mabus
Navy Secretary Ray Mabus praised the LCS program and “can’t wait” to get the ships deployed.

“The LCS-2 that you (Austal and General Dynamics) have built here is out on sea trials right now, and I can’t wait to get it deployed,” Mabus said in a speech in Mobile in March, according to the paper.

“The LCS that’s already been deployed in the Caribbean in the first three weeks seized over three tons of cocaine.

“And the reason that it did was, these drug runners’ fast boats would be going along and they’d see a Navy ship on the horizon, they’d see a gray hull and they’d just assume they could outrun it. Nope, couldn’t do it.”

Last week, the Navy awarded Austal USA a $313 million contract to build the sixth and seventh ships in the 10-ship Joint High Speed Vessels series.

Anticorrosion Systems

“Aluminum is more prone to corrosion and oxidation than the stainless steel in the LCS propulsion system,” the Press-Register reported. “In the saltwater environment, charged ions from the aluminum are attracted by the stainless steel, and that causes the aluminum to corrode much faster than normal.”

Coating the stainless-steel water jets and attaching a sacrificial anode system have not been sufficient to stave off the corrosion.

Austal USA President Joe Rella said his company will use new anti-corrosion coating material on the LCS under construction now, the newspaper said.


Tagged categories: Corrosion resistance; Marine; Marine Coatings; U.S. Navy

Comment from Tom Schwerdt, (7/8/2011, 8:21 AM)

I wonder what they were trying as a sacrificial anode for aluminum - the choices are limited enough I would think impressed current would be required. Any CP experts care to comment?

Comment from James Hobson, (7/8/2011, 9:07 AM)

Didn't the British have an aluminum destroyer that they used during the Falkland invasion by Argentina? Wasn't the ship completely destroyed when an Exocet missile actually ignited the aluminum [at a certain temperature]? How has the Navy addressed this problem?

Comment from Rick Southard, (7/8/2011, 10:05 AM)

HMS SHEFFIELD was lost after being hit by an Exocet. Although I could be wrong, I don't think the Exocet ignited the aluminum. I think it started a fire that melted the aluminum. This is reminiscent of the USS JOHN F. KENNEDY/USS BELKNAP collision in 1977 or 1978. BELKNAP's aluminum suprestructure was drenched in JP-5 from KENNEDY and almost completely melted in the ensuing fire. I believe that collision was one of the main reasons the ARLIEGH BURKE class was designed with a steel superstructure. Of course, none of this answers your last question as it pertains to the LCS...

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