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Breaking The Big Curse
by James Dunnigan
June 6, 2011

Some warships are cursed. They just don't work right. When this happens to an automobile, you call it a lemon. But a defective warship is a more serious matter, and the U.S. Navy now fears it has an entire class of ships that is cursed. For the last five years, ever since the USS San Antonio, the first of the LPD 17 class amphibious ships entered service, there has been one problem after another. It began during sea trials, and there is no end in sight. Worse, all four subsequent LPD 17s to enter service exhibit similar problems. Most of the woes were created by poor workmanship and inadequate quality control by the builder. Contributing to these problems there are some poor design decisions and inadequate maintenance practices by the crew. But most of the problems occurred in the shipyard, while the ships were being built. The U.S. Navy sees this as symptomatic of what is wrong with the handful of yards that build most of American warships. This is especially embarrassing when compared to how well foreign shipyards produce similar warships.

Originally, the plan was for twelve LPD 17s to replace 41 smaller, older and worn out amphibious ships. Five LPD 17s have been built, four are under construction and another has been ordered. When the USS San Antonio entered service it was suddenly discovered that the builders had done a very shoddy job. It took the better part of a year to get the ship in shape. The second of the class, the USS New Orleans, was also riddled with defects that required several hundred million dollars to fix. This pattern of shoddy workmanship, incompetent management and outright lies (from the ship builders) continued, and resulted the order being cut to eleven ships. To add insult to injury, the last ship in the class is being named after politician John P. Murtha, who is generally hated by soldiers and marines for the way he politically exploited and defamed the troops who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. This is particularly painful because the LPD 17s carry marines into combat.

Many consider the San Antonio class as a poster child for all that's wrong with American warship construction efforts. The ships are being delivered late, and hundreds of millions of dollars over budget. The list of problems with the ships is long, embarrassing and seemingly without end. Although the San Antonio did get into service, it was then brought in for more inspections and sea trials, and failed miserably. Repairs are still underway to catch all the shipyard errors.

Each LPD 17 displaces 24,900 tons and is 221 meters/684 feet long. The navy crew is 360, and 720 marines and all their equipment are carried. There is 25,000 square feet (2,500 square meters) for vehicle storage and a 24 bed hospital, with two operating rooms and the ability to set up another hundred beds in an emergency. Onboard weapons include two Bushmaster II 30mm Close In Guns and two Rolling Airframe Missile (RAM) launchers to defend against anti-ship missiles. The ship is designed to carry and use two LCAC (Landing Craft Air Cushion vehicle), and 14 Amphibious Assault Vehicles. Five MV-22 (Osprey tiltrotor aircraft), as well as even more helicopters, can operate off the ship's flight deck. Each LPD 17 is expected to cost over a billion dollars (compared to original estimates of $700 million), although the first one cost $1.7 billion. The LPD 17 class replaces four other classes of amphibious ships (LPD 4, LSD 36, LST 1179 and LKA 113).

While the admirals are correct in blaming the shipyards for many of the problems, the navy shares a lot of the blame as well. It is, after all, the navy that draws up the contracts, and supplies inspectors during construction. However, the inspectors were regularly deceived and lied to (about the quality of work and supervision and known defects being fixed). While Congressional interference can be blamed as well, in the end, it's the navy that has the most to say, and do, about how the ships are built. The problem is, admirals who stand up and take on the contractors and politicians put their careers on the line. The ship builder deploys a large number of lobbyists and have many key politicians as allies.

The builder (Northrop Grumman) did try to fix things, but the Avondale shipyard (in Louisiana), where the LPD 17s are built, seemed cursed as well. Nothing Northrop Grumman did (in terms of changing management) seemed to work. So Northrop Grumman is shutting down Avondale (once the largest employers in the state) and shifting all LPD 17 work to their Pascagoula (Mississippi) yards. It's not certain that will fix the problems, which many admirals believe resides with the senior management of Northrop Grumman. The one LPD 17 in service that was not built at Avondale, USS Mesa Verde, has had a lot fewer problems. The builder is transferring work on the LPD 17 to another shipyard over the next two years. But this will cost over $200 million, which the builder will absorb.

Meanwhile, a growing number of admirals are willing to take career risks, and try for some fundamental reform, and finally fix the "system" that turns out more problems than warships. Victory is not assured. The shipyards and their suppliers have powerful allies in Congress. All that money translates into votes that gets incumbent politicians reelected. Congress is not inclined to attack this kind of patronage and pork, since nearly all members of Congress depend on it. The admirals can openly complain, but offended legislators can quietly cripple the careers of those critics. The smart money is betting against the good guys here. So far, the smart money is right. But the LPD 17 mess was so vast, expensive and messy that even many politicians are calling for some fundamental changes.


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