Marines: Defeat At New Orleans

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September 1,2008:  Three years ago, the amphibious ship USS San Antonio (the first of its class) entered service. Or at least tried to. The builders had done a very shoddy job, and 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.

Many consider the San Antonio class as a poster child for all that's wrong with American warship construction. The ships are being delivered late, and hundreds of millions of dollars over budget. The list of problems with the ships is long and embarrassing. Although the San Antonio did get into service, it was then brought in for more inspections and sea trials, and failed miserably. It cost $36 million and three months to get everything fixed.

San Antonio is the first of twelve LPD 17 class ships. Each is 24,900 tons displacement and 684 feet long. The navy crew is 360, and 720 marines and all their equipment are carried. There is 25,000 square feet 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 of the new AAAV (Advanced Amphibious Assault Vehicle), as well as the current AAV. The MV-22 (Osprey tiltrotor aircraft), as well as current helicopters, can operate off the ships flight deck. The AAAV and MV-22 are expected to be in service in the next few years. Each LPD 17 costs about $800 million. 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 of the ships. 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. But it appears that a number of admirals are willing to take the 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.

 

 


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