; reproduced by permission)
By Louis Hansen
NORFOLK, VA --- The highly touted nerve center of the new, $1.8 billion amphibious ship San Antonio is fraught with computer hardware crashes that could cripple operations. The ship lacks basic safety equipment, such as hand rails and reliable guns to battle close-in attacks.
In all, Navy inspectors found 30 major flaws aboard the San Antonio, according to an internal report obtained by The Virginian-Pilot.
Despite the deficiencies, the Navy has earmarked $13 billion to purchase nine amphibious ships in the San Antonio class.
The report reflects some of the same problems disclosed by The Pilot in July 2005. Two years later, the San Antonio is still incomplete and $840 million over budget.
The LPD-17 class of ships, or landing platform dock, replaces older amphibious ships used to deliver Marines and their equipment, including aircraft, into combat. The San Antonio is the first ship in the new class.
Secretary of the Navy Donald Winter criticized shipbuilder Northrop Grumman Ship Systems for substandard work and, in a letter last week, questioned the future of amphibious and destroyer ship programs under contract with the company.
“By taking delivery of incomplete ships with serious quality problems, the Fleet has suffered unacceptable delays in obtaining deployable assets,” Winter wrote to Ronald Sugar, Northrop Grumman’s chief executive officer. Two years after accepting the San Antonio, “the Navy still does not have a mission capable LPD ship,” Winter wrote.
Bill Glenn, a spokesman for the company’s shipbuilding division in Mississippi, said in a statement that the San Antonio is a “revolutionary first-in-class U.S. Navy amphibious ship.”
Responding to the myriad problems found by Navy inspectors, he said the amphibious class “continues to improve and mature as lessons learned on early ships are rolled into follow ships.”
Capt. Bill Galinis, the Navy’s program manager for the LPD-17 class, said in an interview that engineering problems are common for the first ship built in a new class. “Lead ships are difficult,” he said. Despite the equipment failures, he said the ship is “absolutely safe.”
“It would not have been accepted by the Navy if the ship was not safe,” he said.
One veteran naval analyst, Norman Polmar, said other first-in-class amphibious ships have never been so flawed when they joined the fleet. “These are basically troop transport ships,” he said in an interview. “We’ve been building these ships for 65 years.”
The Navy accepted the San Antonio from the shipbuilder in July 2005. Two other ship manufacturers worked on the vessel before the companies were consolidated into Northrop Grumman.
When it reached the fleet, Navy inspectors found “poor construction and craftsmanship standards,” according to an earlier report.
In March 2006, chief of naval operations Adm. Mike Mullen also attacked Northrop Grumman over its work quality. The average cost per ship has risen 50 percent over original estimates, according to the Navy.
Polmar said “the entire program should be stopped right now.”
The San Antonio spent most of last year at sea, although it has not left for a full, six-month deployment. It is undergoing $36 million in previously scheduled Navy-funded repairs at local shipyard BAE Systems.
Officials from the Navy Board of Inspection and Survey met the ship March 26 to 30 for its final trials in Norfolk . The ship was unable to leave its pier because of a steering failure caused by an electronic malfunction, the report said.
Inspectors detailed their observations and test results in a 45 -page report.
The worst problems were in the propulsion, auxiliary and aviation systems. Nearly two-thirds of those serious problems were discovered during an earlier inspection, reported as fixed, but still existed during the later check.
Fluid leaks, tangled wires and broken hardware were found across the ship, the report said. In fact, inspectors wrote that the “San Antonio remains an unfinished ship” – almost two years after it joined the fleet.
About 15 percent of the spaces aboard the ship need additional work in the yard, with no completion dates set.
The computer network that allows the crew to operate the ship from almost any terminal on board is common in commercial vessels but new to Navy amphibious ships.
Inspectors discovered hardware and software failures. The system sometimes crashes, hindering the crew’s ability to command and control the ship and launch Marines on air, land and sea assaults.
Replacement parts for the computer network were made by a company that has gone out of business. Often, repair parts are costly and need to be custom-made, the report said.
Serious problems also exist in the well deck, where amphibious vehicles are kept and launched.
The ship suffered from a faulty communication link between pilots and landing officers. The report recommends suspending all helicopter and tilt-rotor Osprey flight operations until the deficiency is fixed. The ship’s crew told inspectors that flight safety had been a concern for more than six months.
Inspectors also paint a picture of an uncomfortable and unsafe ship for the 360 San Antonio sailors and 700 troops that would embark on amphibious missions. A live, ungrounded cable was discovered in a berthing area; 124 of 156 auto-inflatable life preservers were missing for topside crew; equipment failures meant the ship could not make enough fresh water at sea for the crew; and the galley could struggle to cook enough food.
Galinis said many problems have been fixed since the inspection. Life preservers have been properly placed, gun mounts repaired and faulty computer parts replaced. Other issues, he said, were less serious than the report spells out.
The ship-wide network will make the ship more efficient and easier to operate, he said. The network has been overhauled and upgraded.
“We knew we were going to see some premature failures,” Galinis said. “It is in very good shape now.”
The Navy is sympathetic to the sailors aboard the San Antonio, he said. The equipment failures have “probably made a hard job more difficult,” he said.
The second ship in the amphibious class, the New Orleans, has fewer problems but was still incomplete when accepted by the Navy, Winter wrote to Northrop Grumman.
The company’s “inefficiency and mismanagement of LPD 17 put the Navy in an untenable position,” according to Winter.
He has assigned a deputy to perform quarterly reviews on the shipyard and all ships under contract with Northrop Grumman.
Polmar suggested that the Navy use more established ship designs used by other navies to upgrade its amphibious fleets.
The Navy also should hold the contractor and the project leadership accountable for the failures, he said. “The Navy leadership should have laid down the law,” he said.