Failure to launch: U.S. Navy has a ship building problem and no real solutions
The U.S. Navy seems to have a recurring problem with newer ships coming off the assembly line: none of them work the way they were designed to.
From the catapults of the USS Gerald R. Ford to the Zumwalt-class of futuristic guided-missile destroyers, the recurring theme seems to be “overdue and over-budget” when it comes to delays and performance woes.
The American shipbuilding industry was not always so shoddy- much like the sturdy American homes of olde, the vessels created at U.S. shipyards once served as beacons of craftsmanship, only to later give way around the same time that the housing industry seemed enamored with flimsy “McMansions.”
The Navy often blames the contractors, who in turn blame the Navy. In short, the whole military-industrial contracting system is so fundamentally broken, it serves as an endless cycle of blame, cost overruns, and time delays.
Here are some examples of ships that have missed the mark right out of the harbor:
USS Gerald R. Ford
The newest aircraft carrier around, the USS Ford is a design departure unseen since the 1970s. Unfortunately, the ship has been plagued with problems since it first departed the Huntington Ingalls Industries shipyard.
Costing around $13 billion, the warship is effectively unable to perform as an aircraft carrier, thanks to a temperamental Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System (EMALS), and ammo elevators that only function some of the time.
As the ship undergoes shock trials (when charges are set off near the hull), the elevators that do work might not survive, and the ship may need an overhaul… again.
The USS Ford is expected to be home to several F-35 Lightning IIs, an aircraft that has also been plagued with developmental issues, though the kinks have been largely ironed out with the help of time- and lots of money.
Zumwalt-Class Guided Missile Destroyers
Resembling a concrete structure sailing ominously through the waves, the Zumwalt-class guided-missile destroyer is a stealthy vessel that will no doubt be dangerous to the enemy, at least once it stops being dangerous to the crew.
At $7.8 billion, the Zumwalt is the lead ship in the class was supposed to be deemed “combat capable” last month, which is five years past its initial deadline and over a decade after it was first built.
The ship has been cursed with leaks and breakdowns, even requiring a tow through the Panama Canal after suffering a seawater leak in a shaft lube oil system. The Navy claims it is working around the clock to correct over 320 “serious deficiencies” that were discovered and identified when the Zumwalt was accepted in May of this year.
Despite the Navy’s acceptance, the ship is not expected to be combat-ready until 2020.
The USS Independence and other Littoral Combat Ships (LCS)
Imagine if you will, a ship that is literally disintegrating from the inside out. Sounds crazy, right? Well, it’s not.
Built in Alabama by Austal USA (an American branch of an Australian shipbuilding cooperative), the Independence is doing just that, thanks to something known as “galvanic corrosion,” otherwise known as what happens when dissimilar metals corrode at different rates following electrical contact.
If that sounds bad to you, that’s because it is. The problem, which was discovered eight years ago, was nothing short of a corrosion issue in her propulsion system. As it turns out, mixing aluminum and steel causes compatibility issues.
Costing $400 million per ship, the LCSs are in active service, and Austal managed to work out a way to slow down the corrosion after trading blame with the U.S. Navy.
That said, the LCS program has been a headache for the Navy, as many of the ships have continually suffered from problems.
While much of the overall blame can be traced to the makers of the ships, a large share of the problems rest with the Navy’s contracts, and how “delivered” and “complete” often mean the same thing- even if they shouldn’t.
Earlier this year, it was revealed that the Pentagon’s acquisition system often seems to encourage shoddy work, giving rise to a potential habit of delivering ships on schedule that are largely unfinished or poorly constructed.
Former Austual USA Vice President – turned consultant – Craig Hooper said it best in an article published by Roll Call, “There’s an old shipbuilding adage, a ship so nice, we built it twice.’”
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