Troubles In Port, At Sea Weigh Down Navy Ship

October 2nd, 2008  
Team Infidel

Topic: Troubles In Port, At Sea Weigh Down Navy Ship

San Diego Union-Tribune
October 1, 2008
Pg. 1
By Steve Liewer, Staff Writer
The crew of the New Orleans could find plenty of reasons to sing the blues.
The Navy amphibious assault ship was battered by Hurricane Katrina while being built in its namesake city. It arrived at its home port of San Diego 16 months ago – two years behind schedule, 90 percent over budget and needing 400,000 hours' worth of construction work.
In mid-August, the New Orleans stumbled in a major test at sea.
A report from the Navy's Bureau of Inspection and Survey described 2,600 problems, including “ongoing deficiencies” with the steering system and an unreliable propulsion system.
“USS New Orleans was degraded in her ability to conduct sustained combat operations,” the report said. “The ship cannot support embarked troops, cargo or landing craft.”
Navy officials said most of the problems have been fixed. They expect the ship to embark on its first deployment early next year.
The New Orleans is the second vessel in the LPD-17 class of high-tech amphibious assault ships, which ferry Marines and their equipment to and from war zones. The lead vessel, the San Antonio, took 10 years to deliver and saw its cost double from $750 million to $1.5 billion.
These ordeals make the LPD-17 series one of the most troubled shipbuilding programs ever, some Navy analysts said. It also is the latest in a line of military weapons programs – especially those for the Navy and Air Force – that have suffered from poor quality, extensive delays and galloping cost overruns.
Last year, the Navy scrubbed two of four San Diego-bound prototypes for its new Littoral Combat Ship because costs had more than doubled. Congress and the Pentagon also have slashed production of the new DDG-1000 destroyer from 32 ships to three, and they have trimmed purchases of the Air Force's F-22 fighter by two-thirds, according to the Congressional Research Service.
“We are now getting fewer ships and aircraft for more money, and they're not working,” said Winslow Wheeler, a senior analyst at the Center for Defense Information in Washington, D.C., a think tank frequently critical of Pentagon spending. “The Navy and the Air Force have made laughingstocks out of themselves.”
In the New Orleans report, inspectors also noted broken ventilation fans, inoperable elevators and corrosion on the flight deck. The galley had to be shut down until firefighting equipment there could be fixed.
“It has a lot of problems that are surprising for a ship that's been in the fleet” for about a year and a half, said Jan van Tol, retired commander of a Navy amphibious assault ship and a senior fellow at the nonpartisan Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington.
“On an inspection trial like this, you would hope that most of the major systems would be operating,” van Tol added.
But the New Orleans' top officers are upbeat.
Eighty-five percent of the deficiencies listed in the recent report were minor issues such as oversprayed paint or inoperative lights, according to a statement from the Naval Sea Systems command.
Cmdr. Scott Davies, who took over in June as the New Orleans' skipper, said his ship, crew and hundreds of Marines will go to sea for a training exercise this month. He also said he's eager to join the Boxer amphibious strike group for the New Orleans'maiden combat mission.
“I'm confident the ship is safe to deploy,” Davies said in a recent interview aboard the ship.
Navy officials express continuing confidence in the LPD-17 class. They are “working closely with Northrop Grumman to incorporate lessons learned from the lead ship,” Katie Roberts, a spokeswoman for the Naval Sea Systems Command, said in a statement.
Military analysts said the Navy blew it by accepting the San Antonio and the New Orleans from Northrop Grumman even though the ships weren't fully built. The San Antonio was 92 percent complete, and the New Orleans was 97 percent complete.
The San Antonio was delivered “in shockingly bad condition,” said Bob Work, a senior analyst with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.
“They shouldn't take a ship unless it's ready to go in a month or two,” said Norman Polmar, an independent naval analyst based in Alexandria, Va. “In my opinion, this borders on the criminal.”
Naval officials accepted the vessels because of the need to get them into the fleet quickly to replace retiring amphibious assault ships, according to a Congressional Research Service report. Those officials also said the Navy's own repair yards could finish the ships more quickly and cheaply than Northrop Grumman.
Hurricane Katrina ravaged the company's shipyards in New Orleans and Pascagoula, Miss., in September 2005, causing an exodus of many of its best laborers.
“It pushed away a lot of the work force,” Work said. “Anytime the percentage of (inexperienced) workers gets really high, you're going to have quality-control problems.”
Some observers also said the Navy tried to pack too much technology into the LPD-17 vessels.
For decades, the Navy built amphibious assault ships with few weapons systems and plain-vanilla radar and communications equipment. Escort ships provide the firepower to keep amphibs from harm.
Not so for the LPD-17 ships.
They feature sophisticated computer networks instead of the array of gauges once found on the bridge of a naval vessel. The improvement gives skippers unprecedented command and control of all ship systems.
The San Antonio, the New Orleans and their sister ships also have long-range radar coupled with a high-tech missile system. They can travel about twice as far as older ships without refueling, said Lt. Cmdr. Darren McClurg, the New Orleans' executive officer.
And LPD-17 vessels offer creature comforts such as extra-wide passageways and sit-up bunks with pull-out trays so sailors and Marines can use laptops while in their beds.
The features that make skippers and sailors smile also make the ships immensely more complicated to build. Production costs have ballooned from a budgeted $750 million to $1.6 billion, Polmar said.
“We do need amphibious lift capability,” he said, “but not at $1.6 billion apiece, and not one that can't sail for 2˝ years.”
The Navy has taken delivery of two more LPD-17s: the Mesa Verde and the Green Bay. The next deliveries include the New York, built with 24 tons of steel salvaged from the wreckage of the World Trade Center and scheduled to be commissioned Sept. 11, 2009, and the San Diego in 2010.
Navy officials said the newest ships have far fewer bugs than the San Antonio and the New Orleans.
“The LPD-17 class continues to improve and mature as lessons learned on early ships are rolled into (later) ships,” said Roberts, the Navy spokeswoman.
Despite the early problems, the naval analyst Work also thinks the new amphibious assault ships eventually will prove worthwhile. He expects to see the LPD-17 hull adapted for other Navy uses, such as hospital or fleet command ships.
The Navy “is going to be glad (the amphibious assault ships) are overdesigned,” Work said. “Once they get out into the fleet, they're going to be a huge hit.”

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