No excuse for shoddy warships

  • 27 March 2019
  • NormanL

Even as the president proposes spening more money on natioal defense, there are still grave concerns about current defense programs and whether the government is getting what you, the taxpayer, have paid for.

In the case of the U.S. Navy, the question isn't hypothetical -- there's a real problem with defective ships:

For the U.S. Navy, buying warships that are defective, unfinished or both has become the norm.

The habit is expensive, dangerous and leaves overworked sailors to deal with faulty ships in need of repair from day one — yet it has escaped sufficient scrutiny in Washington.

Contrary to the Navy’s own policy, and despite spending nearly $16 billion on average in each of the last 30 years on new warships, most U.S. combat vessels are delivered from private shipbuilders with flaws significant enough to impair the vessels’ ability to perform missions or to keep crews safe, according to recent audits conducted for Congress.

On top of these identified glitches, still more systems unexpectedly break down on ship after ship shortly after the Navy starts operating them.

That is unacceptable. There has been some improvement, however:

GAO auditors say the Navy has improved in the past decade in fixing the most serious defects on its ships. And there is no evidence that anyone has been directly injured or killed as a result of a ship defect.

Nonetheless, of eight ships representing most of the Navy’s major classes, all but one was turned over to the fleet for operations with major defects that adversely affected ship performance, the GAO reported in 2017.

These included “the most serious deficiencies for operational or safety reasons,” GAO auditors wrote in a 2018 review of their recent work.

Indeed, for at least the past 15 years, the Navy has only once declined to accept a ship because of defects, despite regularly having cause to do so, experts say.

Quality control will become more critical than ever in the years ahead. The Navy is seeking $24 billion in fiscal 2020 for warships — the largest such budget in 20 years, adjusting for inflation.

The plans include new frigates, nuclear-missile subs and unmanned ships.

And some in Congress are starting to realize that paying for shoddy equipment insn't in the national interest. But then we get this:

The two poster children of U.S. warship acquisition fiascoes are the Zumwalt destroyers and the Ford-class aircraft carriers.

The Zumwalt program had so many developmental difficulties that the Navy decided to deliver each of the three destroyers in two “phases.” In essence, the first phase was the ship and the second phase was the equipment that enables the vessel to perform its most important jobs.

The first two Zumwalt ships have been delivered, and both have had engine malfunctions.

The first Zumwalt destroyer had 320 deficiencies at delivery.

Because of the Zumwalts’ technical challenges, the first one won’t be ready to fight until at least 2021 — five years after it was delivered and 15 years after Congress ordered the ship.

Similarly, even after the first Ford-class carrier was delivered to the Navy in 2017 — two years late — it still had trouble launching and landing aircraft and none of its 11 weapons elevators worked, due to mysterious sounding problems such as “uncommanded movements.”

Because both the ships were designated as having been delivered before they were fully built, Congress passed a law in 2016 requiring that future Navy ships be completely assembled before official delivery.

But being assembled and being free of critical defects are two different things. And Congress has not outlawed the latter.

Maybe that will change. It certainly should.