The Navy’s hull crack problem

The fleet had to learn to live with cracking cruisers, and it may need to do the same with LCS.

The Navy and Lockheed Martin said this week that a watchdog group’s report about the littoral combat ship USS Freedom was just a rehash of old stuff, problems diagnosed awhile ago and for which fixes were already in place or in the works.

But at least one of the issues has been with the Navy for decades, and its appearance so early in the life of the first LCS could only add to the list of costs and challenges that sailors must deal with as they bring the new ships online.

According to documents obtained by the Project On Government Oversight, the Freedom had at least 17 cracks by the time it entered dry dock out in San Diego; some of those cracks were admitting water. All the cracks were above the Freedom’s main deck. The ship has a steel hull and an aluminum superstructure, and the cracks described by the Navy report are different from another problem the ship had — the failure of one of its shaft seals, the area at which one of the main propulsion driveshafts goes through the hull and out into the ocean.

The Freedom isn’t the first ship the Navy has built with an aluminum superstructure and a steel hull. Naval engineers turn to aluminum because it’s lighter than steel; this helped keep the cruisers stable despite their towering Aegis superstructures and helps make both the Freedom and its cousin, the all-aluminum USS Independence, very fast.

The cruisers, though, also have had to deal with many cracks as their years in service wore on. Which raised the question for one of our phriend Phib’s correspondents — is LCS fated to be as prone to structural cracks as the cruisers are? Here’s what he wrote about the Freedom:
Cracks in the port and starboard forward corners of the deckhouse right about the bi-metallic and steel coming (same arrangement as found on FFG and CG) is telling us that the entire front of the house is wobbling from side to side. More or less, the aluminum is being compressed down, then stretched up. Eventually metal fatigue will have its way and you’ll have cracks there. Navy will try to fix this by establishing “critical weld procedures” for certain areas where cracks show up (from bad design and lack of stress analysis) and by inserting thicker plates in these locations. As you can guess, the problem hasn’t gone away; the cracks will move above, inboard or aft of the thicker plate. It’s the same system they’ve used on FFGs and CGs when they don’t want to admit they had faulty design.

POGO’s Dana Liebelson argues that this just can’t continue:

Imagine if you had to fly on a commercial jet that had equipment failures (like power outages!) most of the time. Not only would you be rightfully concerned for your safety—but how on earth would you get anywhere on time?

Well, the reality is that USS Freedom doesn’t—after more than six months in port, the ship has only been out to sea twice this year, and during both trips the engines and other key equipment failed. This is a far cry from what the Navy has been telling taxpayers: it’s claimed to Congress that both variants of the LCS are performing well. It’s time for the Navy to fess up that this ship is nothing but a busted, leaky boat with a history of design and equipment failures. With the LCS program expected to cost taxpayers $120 billion, it simply doesn’t make sense to keep this unnecessary vessel.

Oh yes it does, say the Navy and Lockheed.

“USS Freedom is a first-of-class ship, and it is expected the Navy will discover and correct issues as they are identified,” NavSea spokesman Chris Johnson told DoDBuzz. “This is not unique to LCS, but standard for all first-of-class ships. We are fully confident that LCS 1 and the rest of the class will perform as designed.”

Said Lockheed spokeswoman Dana Casey: “USS Freedom has been certified and approved by both the Navy and the American Bureau of Shipbuilding. Solely focusing on isolated incidents on this first ship misrepresents the nearly decade of experience and knowledge Lockheed Martin now has building and maintaining these ships. Any issue that has arisen in the development, testing and usage of this lead ship has been, or will be, addressed to ensure she and future Freedom-class ships meet or exceed the Navy’s needs. And our overall LCS program remains on cost and on schedule.”

It’s probably too soon to determine whether LCS will develop a cracking problem as widespread as that aboard the cruisers. Only two Freedom-class ships are in the water today and the second, USS Fort Worth, hasn’t made its way into the open ocean yet; it’s still sticking to the Great Lakes near the Wisconsin shipyard where it was built.

As for the Independence, its public profile is almost as low as a submarine’s: Where the Freedom made a much-trumpeted “trial deployment” when it changed homeports from Florida to San Diego, the Independence has made the same cruise, including a trip through the Panama Canal, with barely a peep from the Navy. No “early deployment” branding and no chasing of drug smugglers or other “missions.” The second Independence-class ship, the Coronado, was christened in January but hasn’t yet joined the fleet.

New or old, isolated or widespread, POGO’s documents and its letter to the Hill probably will do little to arrest the momentum of LCS. The program is too far along, too much money already has been spent, and the Navy has made up its mind to make the ships work, no matter what.