Ships that Won't Sail

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"No more amphib excuses" reads the headline of a recent editorial in Navy Times newspaper. The editorial went on to enumerate some of the problems being encountered by the Navy's new amphibious ships of the San Antonio (LPD 17) class.

After a construction period that lasted twice as long as planned, and cost twice as much as originally budgeted, the San Antonio was belatedly placed in commission on 14 January 2006.

But the ship was not ready for service and, after two and a half years of being "fixed," the San Antonio was to deploy with an amphibious group. But on the eve of her August sailing it was discovered that there were problems with the stern gate to her docking well, where LCU landing craft and AAV amphibian assault vehicles are carried and discharged.

After additional work was performed the ship was able to deploy two days later.

Still, the San Antonio probably goes down in Navy history as having taken the longest time on record from being placed in commission to first deployment. This is amazing when one considers that the LPDs are basically "transport ships" with docking wells and helicopter decks. The Navy has been building docking well ships since the early 1940s, with the first, the USS Ashland (LSD 1), completed in 1943.

The new LPDs have relatively simple and basic systems -- no high-tech radars, no sonar, no advanced missiles, no nuclear propulsion, no advanced electronic warfare systems. Okay. As the Navy Times editorial of 8 September pointed out, the Navy and industry spokesmen "repeatedly have given the same excuse: You will always have issues with the first ship of a class."

That is not a true statement -- look at the intervals between being placed in commission and the first deployment of the first U.S. nuclear-propelled submarine, the Nautilus (SSN 571); the first Polaris submarine, the George Washington (SSBN 598); the first nuclear surface warship, the Long Beach (CGN 9); the first Aegis warship, the Ticonderoga (CG 47); and many other high-tech lead ships.

Now the second ship of the San Antonio class, the USS New Orleans (LPD 18), has been found to suffer from a long list of problems. That ship, also behind schedule and far over cost, was commissioned on 5 March 2007 -- a year and a half ago. The recent report of a Navy inspection team concludes that the ship "cannot support embarked troops, cargo or landing craft," and was deemed "degraded in her ability to conduct sustained combat operations."

These ships were built by Northrop Grumman Ship Systems at Avondale, Louisiana. An additional ship, the Mesa Verde (LPD 19), was commissioned on 15 December 2007, and several more are under construction at the yard.

By accepting these ships the Navy has taken responsibility away from the shipbuilder to pay for fixing these massive problems. Beyond these issues, the basic design of the LPD 17 must also be questioned. Compared to the Navy's previous LPD class of 12 ships completed from 1965 to 1971, the San Antonio class is one-third larger (24,900 tons compared to 16,585 tons), but has minimal improvements in troop, vehicle, and landing craft capacities, with a slight increase in speed.

Coupled with the delays and major cost increases in the Navy's littoral combat ship (LCS) program, and the Navy's continued confusion and changes in the DDG 1000 advanced destroyer program, the credibility of the Navy's shipbuilding efforts must be questioned. When addressed in the broad context of the shrinking size of the fleet and the expected reductions in shipbuilding budgets, the situation should be considered critical

-- Norman Polmar

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