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Navy’s “Ship Of The Future” Is Disintegrating

Above: The Navy's newest littoral combat ship USS Independence on the way to Norfolk, Va., before sailing to its homeport in San Diego. Independence is designed as a fast, agile, mission-focused ship for use in shallow, coastal water regions.

Aired 7/25/11 on KPBS Midday Edition.

It's not unusual for the Navy to experience problems and glitches with new ships and weapons systems. But it's not often that a new vessel will actually start to dissolve in less than a year.

Our first story is about the problems affecting a new class of Navy combat ship, first deployed here in San Diego. The Navy frequently encounters glitches with new ships and weapons systems. But it's not often that a new vessel will actually start to dissolve in less than a year. That's what the builder says is happening to the new USS Independence, one of the new class of Littoral Combat ships.

Guest: Gary Robbins, defense reporter, San Diego Union Tribune

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This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

CAVANAUGH: The Navy frequently encounters glitches with new ships and weapon accesses. It's not usual that a new ship will start to dissolve in less than a year. That's what's happening to the USS independence, one of the new class of littoral combat ships. My guest is Gary Robbins, defense and science reporter for the San Diego Union Tribune. Gary, hello.

ROBBINS: Hi. It's good to be here.

CAVANAUGH: You've been covering the troubles with the littoral class of ships. First of all, what is a littoral combat ship? How is it different?

ROBBINS: It's designed to get closer, get into shallow water. So frigates can go into shallow water. But the idea of littoral or coastal zone is to quiet in very close at a high speed if you want to, and to do different type was missions. It's meant to give the Navy a much better ability to strike at a coast, do something, and get out.

CAVANAUGH: And do what?

ROBBINS: It could put special forces ashore and take them back in, it could fire missiles if at the present timed to. There would be a lot of submarine surveillance, particularly the in Middle East and Persian Gulf. They also would find mines, and look for ways to detect and destroy the mines.

CAVANAUGH: I've heard this new class of ships being touted as the new work horses of the Navy when they get up to speed, so to speak. What is their connection to San Diego? Which of the ships will be home ported here?

ROBBINS: The Navy plans to build a total of 55 of these littoral combat ships, so far they've built two, the free command the independence. The freedom is regard here. The independence is in from that undergoing sea trials and repairs. And it will be here by Christmas. And then the next two will also come to San Diego. Probably half of these ships will come here.

CAVANAUGH: As you mentioned, there are two different version of the littoral combat ships. Are there different pressures with the two versions?

ROBBINS: There have been so far. The freedom that's here in San Diego is a so called monohull. And they discovered a crack of six and a half inches in the ship earlier this year doing performance testing and trying to handle heavy seas. A crack developed and water began to come into the ship. So you don't want the hull cracking. But they've also had problems with the Independence, which is a much different design. It's a tri-marine ship, made mostly of alum noose, and they're having this extraordinary corrosion problem in the area of the four water jets. So you're talking about corrosion in and around the area of the propulsion of the ship.

CAVANAUGH: And it's not the same kind of rust that the Navy deals with, right?

ROBBINS: Yes. It spends $3†billion a year dealing with rust. But we're talking about galvanic corrosion. This is why electrical currents go through two different types of metals that happen to touch. In this case, you have an aluminum hull, but there are other parts of the ship that are steel. It's believed that this galvanic corrosion accelerated the corrosion process.

CAVANAUGH: It's my understanding you spoke with some officials about this particular problem. What do they say about it?

ROBBINS: They say it's very fixable. I talked to admiral murredock back east, and he said the design of the ships is solid and they're coming up with ways to fix them. They describe it as a teething problem for a new family of ships. But members of Congress aren't seeing it that way. Senator John McCane led a group of six U.S. senators in both parties saying this ship cost too much, we're concerned about the describe, performance, corrosion, and Duncan hunter has been leaving in to the Navy saying it electrics like the costs are out of control, you can't figure out what you're doing with design, are there deeper problems? And hunter won't all the way to saying maybe we should rebid the contracts that have been led. And they just are the contracts for 20 of these.

ROBBINS: We invited Congressman dunk an hunter to be on our program with us today, but he was in transit this morning and couldn't do it. The general accounting office though has issued a report on these ships that I understand is quite damning.

ROBBINS: It is. And that's been a report since then from the congressional research service in at a way that's even more damning. It raises questions about not just the cost of the ships, it says in one sense that they don't even know the total cost of the ships. But whether the ships will be able to carry out the mis they were designed to do. So there's a lot of concern right now about what kind of miss will will be used on these ship was than need missiles to defend themselves in close combat. And do they have the ability to carry out fundamental roles like look for mines and destroy the mines? There's been some discussion of replacing types of equipment that they originally thought. There's also concern about the speed of the ship. The Navy sells that these ships can travel 70 notes. But in order for them to perform, you have to swap out p.m.s. In other words, you take modules that carry certain types of equipment for specific missions, and you put them on ships and go do what you're going to do. The idea was you could perform one mission today or tonight and go back to a port and swap in another module, and be able to change missions rapidly. But there's some indication that that's not really the case, that it takes 2 or 3 Kays to swap out mission packages. So the ship may not be as fast. And the most concerning thing lately is whether the ship can survive in a combat environment. It has met a criteria called survivability one, the idea that a ship could take a hit, go off and survive. And in the documents wee looking at, there's concern about whether these ships are that robust. And one of the lawmakers said, why are we building 55 ships that can't stand up to combat when they're going to be going into zones and doing serious things.

ROBBINS:

CAVANAUGH: One of the things you mentioned about which weapons systems would be able to be compatible with this new class of combat ships, there aren't many weapons on these ships right now, are there?

ROBBINS: No, there are not. There's a 50-millimeter high speed gun. And the idea is that you would use it against other small class. So it's a ship that rushes into a zone, and and has had to deal with, like, a small boat perhaps carrying contraband or missiles to fire at other ships or terrorists or something that you really wanted to stop that you have those kind of things. But they're concerned about something called swarming, where other boats would rush in and attack it. And could you respond in time? Originally there was a certain type of weapon they talked about being on the LCS that would be able to fire missiles on a fair distance. But they're phasing that out. And they're going to replace it with a missile that is only shortage. And by the time it comes into service, it could be several years from now. So the ships are being build, and it's not clear what defensive missiles will be used, and they're very concerned about how to detect the mines.

CAVANAUGH: I'm speaking with Mary Robbins, he is defensive science reporter for the San Diego Union Tribune. We're talking about the problems plaguing a new class of Navy combat ships, littoral combat ships, one of which, the U.S.S. Freedom is here in San Diego, and another, the USS independence is headed to be ported here at the end of the year. You have described the Navy telling you these are teething problem, that they're the normal glitches that happen whenever you introduce a new class of ship or a new weapons system. You have on the other hand Good evening and the GAO saying there are fundamental problems here and things going on that we don't even know about like the cost of these vessels. Where is the disconnect in.

ROBBINS: That's the part that is unclear. GAO has done these very detailed reports, and they seem to outline the problem. But more problems keep coming cup. I'm not sure where the disconnect is. Maybe it's a matter of -- it seems like the Navy wants to hold the contractors more accountable here. There's a lot of finger pointing go going on. The contractor who build the independence said it wasn't our fault. This likely happened during the maintenance of the ship by the Navy. But the Navy says no, this is a problem that happened with a weld while it was being built by the contractor. So everybody's pointing fingers and it's difficult for people to sort through that.

CAVANAUGH: And people who keep a close watch on this are saying that's rather odd, because defense contractors who want continuing work from the government don't usually point a finger at the Navy and say, it's your fault.

ROBBINS: Yes, that's not common. And it's a very odd time for it to happen. As you know, the Obama administration has talked about reducing the defense budget by $400†billion over a period of ten years. There's a lot of pressure on, ras right now. And you have this particular one saying is this not our problem. The thing that's making people edgy is they're taking frigates out of service. There are only 27 left in the Navy including six here in San Diego. They need the replacement ships. They need the LCS ships. But now there's doubt about how fast they're going to roll out, and what their robustness will be. That's making people even crazier.

CAVANAUGH: Congressman Duncan hunter from here in San Diego has suggested that the whole contract for this new class of ships might need to be rerebid. What would constitute -- what would go into a rebidding? Would the whole program have to come to a stop?

ROBBINS: I think part of the program would have to come to a stop. The Navy has stages in which it awards contracts. In December they said we're going to contract to build an additional 20 of these. But there are provisions in the contract where they can cancel or delay. If they do that, then you have the argument over whether the rebidding actually would increase the process -- or the price because you're slowing down construction at a time you need new ships. What the Navy has said here is originally the cap on these ships was $220†million am now it's in the vicinity of 400 mill online dollars. The average will be 440. As you look at the documents, it's clear they're not certain it's going to come in at that price. And they can raise the price if they wish, and pass some of that onto the taxpayer, and the Navy itself can waive certain things saying this is a problem we didn't expect. We'll absorb the cost.

CAVANAUGH: What can Congress do at this point?

ROBBINS: What hunter is trying to do is to get GAO to take another look to find out what the exact price is, and whether the crack is an anomaly or whether it represents a larger problem, a design problem, something that would be passed onto additional ships after that. Same way with the corrosion. We need to understand whether that was something specific to the independence or whether it will go on and occur in the next ships. And do the contractors really have solutions on these problems or is it just kind of going on and on and they hope for the best?

CAVANAUGH: If independent they find out the worst case scenario is true, do they actually have the power to stop this program or is this just -- it's been approved and now it's on its own?

ROBBINS: They already did it once. This program dates back about 10 years. And there was a point in the process where some of the ships, the estimates coming in for the ships were just too high. And they canceled several of the LCS ship. So they kind of regrouped, I believe it was back in 2007, and said we need to get ahold of this. Here we are years later, and they're in a similar saying we don't know what the real cost is. The Navy says it'll probably working but Congress is saying we don't believe that.

CAVANAUGH: Well, I'm waiting for your next story on this, Gary. Thank you so much. I've been speaking with Gary Robbins, defense and science reporter for the San Diego Union Tribune.

ROBBINS: Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you.

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