Murphy's Law: The Eternal Scam

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April 16, 2010: The "Gorshkov Scam" (in which Russia agreed to refurbish one of their aircraft carriers for a billion dollars, then spent five years finding unforeseen problems that eventually more than doubled the original price) is not a unique experience in naval history. For example, there was what might be termed the "Monitor Scam of 1869." Peru, seeking to upgrade their Navy, bought two monitors (USS Oneota and USS Catawaba) from the U.S.. These new ships, completed only in mid-1865, were Civil War surplus, and had never seen any hard service. But they were, for the time, the most advanced form of warship available (all armored, with a modern gun in a turret).

Renamed Manco Cápac and Atahualpa, the two monitors departed New Orleans in January, 1869. The ships were fully manned, but under tow, as they could only steam about five days on their own before running out of coal. They had an exciting voyage, across the Gulf of Mexico, into the Caribbean, and thence into the Atlantic, around Cape Horn, and thence into the Pacific before finally arriving at Callao, the principal Peruvian naval base in June of 1870. A voyage that commercial vessels often made in 90 days had taken 15 months, largely because the monitors had a freeboard (i.e., height of deck above the water) of only about 30cm (12 inches), and thus even under tow could proceed only in very calm seas. Going round the Horn (the most violent patch of ocean on the planet) must have been an amazing experience.

Wholly unsuited to oceanic operations, the vessels were normally assigned as station ships at various ports. Surprisingly, both provided useful, albeit limited service during the War of the Pacific (1879-1884), though they ended up being scuttled to avoid capture.   

Although in the case of the two monitors outright graft does not seem to have been an issue, the Peruvians had mistakenly thought to acquire apparently new technology on the cheap, when what they should have done was invested more wisely. For the $400,000 that the Peruvians had paid for each of the two ships, plus the cost of getting them to Peru, they could have bought two new vessels, similar to the turret ram Huascar that they ordered from England in 1865, which provided excellent service until overwhelmed by superior force during the war with Chile. 

Many smaller navies, or navies seeking to build themselves up, have had similar experiences. During the Cold War most of the warships that the US or the Soviets donated to their friends in Asia, Latin America, and Africa ended up rusting away pier side, because the receiving countries couldn't afford to run them.

The U.S. is not immune to this In 1880s, when America was beginning to create "The New Navy," graft, cost overruns, design failures, and similar problems raised the cost and prolonged the completion of most of the ships that were ordered; laid down in 1883, the 4,600 ton cruiser Chicago did not enter service until 1889.

When it comes to corruption in military procurement, there's nothing new under the sun.

 


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