Submarines: Yet Another Construction Failure


August 20, 2015: The U.S. Navy continues having problems with quality control (QC), or, rather, the lack of it. The latest incident was revealed on August 5th when the navy ordered its three most recently built Virginia class subs to restrict their operations until ten suspect (of being substandard) sections of pipe can be inspected and, if necessary, replaced. There are another 40 of these components in subs under construction but taking care of those won’t delay submarine operations. The QC problem has been getting worse since the 1980s and one 2009 incident became widely known. In this instance a welder at the Quonset Point (Rhode Island) shipyard performed substandard welds that were not caught immediately by the quality control system. These welds were not in critical areas but at least one sub already in service was involved.

Earlier in 2009 a weld inspector at the Newport News shipyard was found to be falsifying the inspection of welding jobs on four Virginia class submarines and a Nimitz class carrier. Some 10,000 welds had to be re-inspected, as these are how many the now dismissed inspector handled in four years on the job. Each Virginia class sub has about 300,000 welds that have to be inspected. Normally, only a few will fail inspection and have to be redone. A few defective welds can cause the loss of a submarine, or serious damage aboard a carrier. Two methods are used to inspect welds, magnetism, or a special liquid. It's easy to fake the inspection, thus these quality control inspectors must be carefully selected. This turned out to be just one of many instances where the system failed.

Since the 1990s the navy has seemed unable to cope with persistent problems in its ship construction programs. These difficulties include poor quality, unexpected delays and inflated prices. All this made it difficult to maintain the size and effectiveness of the fleet. One of the major problems is the practice of "low balling." This is where the shipbuilder gives the navy a very low estimate of what a proposed ship is going to cost. Then, when construction is under way, costs creep up, often resulting in the ship costing more than twice the original estimate. When this practice began after World War II it was with the cooperation of the navy that wanted to have an easier time convincing Congress to allow construction of new ships.

Since 2000 the navy has been saying; "no more". The ship builders respond with; "OK" but nothing seems to change. The low balling and all the other problems continue. All current ship building projects are over budget. The worst case is the LCS (Littoral Combat Ship), which was to be the poster boy for doing it right. Didn't work out that way. In 2006, when building plans for the LCS were laid out, each one was to cost $223 million. By 2010 the estimated price was $460 million, and the navy admitted that the ultimate price would probably be higher and it was. Congress is outraged, as always, and demanded that the admirals do something. Nothing really changed.

The real problem is "sole source" procurement of the most expensive ships (carriers, subs and destroyers) plus the Navy's penchant for frequently changing design specifications without regard to impact on cost or the schedule. The problem goes back to when the navy destroyed the Navy Yard system, which was the best check on corruption and carelessness in shipbuilding. By the 1990s all these yards were closed or just used for maintenance. Without the navy yards building ships how does one bring back quality production, or even prove it can be done better, if there are no government owned ship yards that enable the navy to find out how it can be done better?

The shipbuilding industry will sometimes blame the unions. However, Norway, Denmark, Japan, Korea, etc., maintain effective, efficient shipbuilding operations and have strong unions. But the basic notion of having navy-owned yards was so that the service (and the taxpayer) could have an independent "authority" on ship construction and repair.

Examples abound. Back in the '30s, with substantial construction contracts being issued again, the Navy placed orders for three very similar classes of destroyers, two to be built in private yards and one in navy yards. There were about a dozen ships all together. The end result was that the navy-built ships came in on time, on budget, and with few teething problems, while the privately built ones ran over in time and money and required some additional work after completion.

Post-World War II, the shipbuilding industry decided it needed the work more than the navy yards did. A series of interesting laws got passed that marginalized the navy yards. One good one was a law that came out of the Virginia congressional delegation that mandated that modernization, maintenance, and repair jobs be done at yards in proximity to where ships were based. This was very good for Newport News, but meant that navy yards in places like New York, where there were usually no ships based, became "uneconomical." We've only got a few navy-owned yards now, and none of them do construction.

The private shipbuilders and the shipping lines, plus their local members of Congress, have also contributed to the decline of the merchant marine, though they blame the unions, OSHA, EPA, "cheap foreign labor," etc., and so forth. Books have been written about this (like "The Abandoned Ocean: A History of United States Maritime Policy"), but not enough of the right people read them, or wanted to act on the evidence presented. The problem, as in so many areas of military procurement, is politics. The defense budget is seen as a source of votes, above all. No politician will admit it, but the facts speak for themselves.






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