Leadership: The Shipyard War Is Rigged

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April 26, 2007: U.S. Navy admirals are again climbing the walls over poor workmanship and management by ship builders. The LPD (amphibious ship) San Antonio is once more the poster child for all that's wrong with American warship construction. When delivered two years ago (late, and $400 million over budget), the list of problems with the ship was long and embarrassing. Although the San Antonio did get into service (it was at sea for 200 days last year), it was brought in for more inspections and sea trials, and failed miserably. It will cost $36 million and three months to get everything fixed.

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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