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Work begins on ship named for Murtha

Shipbuilders down in Pascagoula, Miss. have begun work on the tenth San Antonio-class amphibious transport, the USS John P. Murtha, just as the program is overcoming its latest set of major obstacles, the Navy says. Vice Adm. Kevin McCoy, the  head of Naval Sea Systems Command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Wednesday that NavSea thinks it has finally solved one of the main problems that has plagued the LPD 17 class: Polluted lube oil that can badly hurt the ships' propulsion.

Poor design, poor workmanship, poor quality control -- they've all been constant as the Navy has struggled to build and deploy its San Antonio class. The early ships especially have had problems with welding, propulsion, their onboard computer networks and other systems. And yet the endemic issues with the LPD 17 class have mostly escaped public notice: The fifth ship, USS New York, was probably the most famous Navy warship in America at the time of its commissioning, because it has steel from the World Trade Center wreckage in its bow stem. Still, news organizations couldn't be bothered when it too was later sidelined with engine trouble.

But that's all in the past, McCoy said. Two of the ships are deployed and three have been at sea, for a total of five underway at once, and he literally knocked on wood at the Senate hearing and hoped that the Navy could keep up the progress with the program. NavSea has hired 200 more inspectors across its supervisors of shipbuilding, McCoy said, and it has learned its lesson, so as the Murtha takes shape, it should reflect the hard lessons of its nine predecessors.

But even if LPD 26 comes together flawlessly, it will remain controversial for another reason: Its name. There are two issues here: First, each ship in the San Antonio class is named for a city, but Navy Secretary Ray Mabus threw that out with "John P. Murtha," which became the latest example, along with an attack submarine named "John Warner" and a dry cargo and ammunition ship named "Cesar Chavez," to flout a Navy naming convention.

Second is the ship's namesake himself, Pennsylvania Rep. Jack Murtha, whose memory is reviled in some quarters after Murtha's stance on the war in Iraq and specifically his comments about the Haditha killings being "in cold blood." The Navy saw a major backlash against the "USS John P. Murtha" name when it was unveiled, and the anger over it continues to simmer.

UPDATE: Just how well did the San Antonio perform after its most recent shipyard repairs? Sam LaGrone of Jane's Defence writes that the ship actually set a new speed record: 26.7 knots. His full story is available for subscribers here.

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