Whistleblower Accuses Shipbuilder of Falsifying Submarine Stealth Coating Tests

The Virginia-class attack submarine USS Virginia (SSN 774) departs Naval Submarine Base New London for a six-month deployment, August 13, 2013. (U.S. Navy photo/Jason J. Perry)
The Virginia-class attack submarine USS Virginia (SSN 774) departs Naval Submarine Base New London for a six-month deployment, August 13, 2013. (U.S. Navy photo/Jason J. Perry)

This article by James Clark originally appeared on Task & Purpose, a digital news and culture publication dedicated to military and veterans issues.

America's largest military shipbuilding company has been accused of falsifying tests and certifications on stealth coatings of its submarines "that put American lives at risk," according to a complaint filed in federal court last month.

Huntington Ingalls Industries, which spun off from Northrop Grumman in 2011, "knowingly and/or recklessly" filed falsified records with the Navy claiming it had correctly applied a coating, called a Special Hull Treatment, to Virginia-class attack submarines which would allow the vessels to elude enemy sonar, the Sept. 26 complaint alleges.

Instead, the complaint said, Huntington Ingalls' Newport News Shipbuilding facility in Virginia took shortcuts that allegedly "plagued" the class of submarines with problems, and then retaliated against the employee who spoke up about the issues.

Huntington Ingalls, and its former parent company Northrop Grumman, are being sued for damages in excess of $100 million for allegedly misleading the federal government on a defense contract to apply the sound-dampening coating to the submarines. The Navy's Virginia-class attack submarines are manufactured as part of a joint effort by General Dynamics' Electric Boat and Huntington Ingalls.

The complaint alleges that Northrop Grumman and Huntington Ingalls Industries violated the federal government's False Claims Act when they "falsified testing and certifications on multi-billion dollar submarine contracts."

The complaint goes on to note that the companies "induced the government to pay the defendants in-full for submarines with dangerous defects that put American lives at risk."

The qui tam lawsuit – a type of suit which is brought under the False Claims Act and rewards whistleblowers in successful cases where the government recoups damages due to fraud – is being brought by Ari Lawrence on behalf of the U.S. Government. According to the complaint, Lawrence, a senior engineer at Huntington Ingalls who has worked there since 2001, has provided evidence of the alleged graft at the company's Newport News Shipbuilding facility in Virginia.

When asked about the lawsuit, the Navy referred Task & Purpose to the Department of Justice, which declined to comment. Northrop Grumman also did not respond.

Duane Bourne, a Huntington Ingalls spokesman, told Task & Purpose that "we fully cooperated with the Department of Justice's investigation and intend to vigorously defend the lawsuit."

When pressed for comment on the findings of the investigation both Huntington Ingalls and the Department of Justice declined to elaborate.

"Newport News Shipbuilding remains committed to building the highest-quality warships for the Navy and does not tolerate any conduct that compromises our mission of delivering ships that safeguard our nation and its sailors," Bourne told Task & Purpose.

The complaint revolves around critical submarine components that Huntington Ingalls was paid to produce; specifically the application of the Special Hull Treatment to Virginia-class attack subs.

The foam-rubber-like exterior coating is designed to absorb sound waves of active sonar so they don't bounce back to the ship or submarine sending out the signal. It's essentially glued onto a submarine using a special two-part adhesive coating (TPAC).

However, the complaint claims that "Huntington Ingalls had never obtained proper qualifications and certifications for the use of TPAC on the Virginia-class submarines for any applications."

Such certifications are "critical to ensure that the personnel used to mix and apply the TPAC are properly qualified and that the procedures are performed correctly," the complaint said.

The complaint alleges that the sound-dampening coating was improperly affixed – allegedly due to the lack of certified personnel applying the TPAC – which caused the coating to "de-bond" and slip off the submarines while underway. According to the complaint, "since the inception of the program, Virginia-class submarines have been plagued with problems with their exterior hull coating system," including an incident in 2007 on the USS Virginia, the first submarine of its class.

"At that time, it was clear that there was a de-bonding problem with the exterior coating," the complaint reads. "In fact, on the USS Virginia, and subsequently delivered Virginia-class submarines, the exterior coatings tore off submarines while underway, often in large sections up to hundreds of square feet."

The issue has been broadly reported in recent years, including in 2017, after photos surfaced showing the USS Mississippi returning to its home port in Hawaii with large portions of its Special Hull Treatment coating missing from the sub.

That de-bonding issue was also noted in a memo from the Pentagon's top weapon system tester, according to a 2011 Congressional Research Service report.

"At that time, it was clear that there was a de-bonding problem with the exterior coating," the complaint reads. "In fact, on the USS Virginia, and subsequently delivered Virginia-class submarines, the exterior coatings tore off submarines while underway, often in large sections up to hundreds of square feet."

The issue has been broadly reported in recent years, including in 2017, after photos surfaced showing the USS Mississippi returning to its home port in Hawaii with large portions of its Special Hull Treatment coating missing from the sub.

That de-bonding issue was also noted in a memo from the Pentagon's top weapon system tester, according to a 2011 Congressional Research Service report.

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