Naval Shipbuilding and Repair goes Awry
by Michael Hansen, President Hawaii Shippers Council
The U.S. Department of Defense has significant problems with its shipbuilding and ship repair programs, much of which is related to inefficiencies and outright incompetence relating to the construction and repair of naval ships, and excessive costs that threaten their capacity to build new ships. The excessively high cost of U.S. ship construction is negatively affecting national security and preventing the Navy from achieving a 315 capital ship navy.
Two recent news stories illustrate and highlight these problems.
The Navy released its preliminary findings yesterday in the case of the fire aboard the Los Angeles Class fast attack nuclear submarine USS Miami (SSN 755) that may result in the vessel being assessed as a total constructive loss. The fire occurred on May 24, 2012, and reportedly started in a vacuum cleaner while the sub was on dock in a naval shipyard in Portsmouth, Maine. The potential loss of a billion dollar vessel due to poor shipyard practice is really not acceptable.
The U.S. Coast Guard Legend-Class National Security Cutter (NSC) USCGC Stratton (WMSL-752) was returned in April 2012 to the shipyard where it was built for extensive warranty work. According to reports, four holes were found penetrating the hull and extensive corrosion oxidation was affecting the ship.
The Stratton was delivered about one year ago by Huntington Ingalls Industries (HII)’s Ingalls Shipyard in Pascagoula, Mississippi, for approximately $500 million. As the Stratton is the third Legend-Class NSC built by Ingalls, this is not the case of a first of a kind in a planned series or a one-off construction that can be difficult to bring in on budget and on time.
The Legend-Class NSC are 416 feet long, and have a displacement of 4500 long tons. These are not large ships, and although there are many high technology aspects to the new Legend Class cutters, they shouldn’t cost a half a billion dollars. They are intended to replace the older Hamilton high endurance class cutters designed and built in the 1960’s.
The problems associated with the cost of the new Legend class NSC was mentioned in an article in the Honolulu Star-Advertiser of February 27, 2012, “Guard asea on aged craft” which said, “The Coast Guard in Honolulu faces a dilemma with its two biggest ships, the aging 378-foot cutters Jarvis and Rush, which the service wants to retire but can't because it has no replacements.”
Essentially, the Coast Guard will have to continue operating the ageing cutters Jarvis and Rush based in Honolulu and covering wide swatches of the Pacific Ocean, because there are not sufficient funds to build new Legend Class NSC to replace them.
It is often said by Jones Act supporters that the U.S.-build requirement for ships is necessary for reasons of national security. The assertion is that requiring the construction of merchant ships in the U.S. will provide work for the major shipbuilding yards and keep them in business and economically healthy to be available for naval construction and times of national emergency.
The fallacy of this assertion is that on average fewer than three large merchant ships have been constructed annually in the U.S. since the mid-1980’s, which is an insufficient level of ship construction to keep the major shipbuilding yards alive. While at the same time, both the commercial shipowners and naval procurement officials cannot replace their fleets on realistic schedules because of the prohibitively high cost of major ship construction in the U.S.
The Navy’s problems with combatant ship construction and repair will not be solved by continuing to impose a domestic-only build policy on merchant shipowners.
AP: Navy: $400M Maine sub fire began in vacuum cleaner
ML: $440 million nuclear sub fire "started in shipyard vacuum cleaner"
RT: Coast Guard's newest ship filled with holes
SA: Guard asea on aged craft