Are LPD-17s Modern-Day Mitschers?

by Craig Hooper on March 1, 2011

It is always easy to point at the latest shipbuilding “disaster” and claim that it is the “greatest” fiasco ever. It’s true that smaller-scale shipbuilding SNAFUS are a fact of life. But these days, to some observers, mistakes are a distinguishing characteristic of naval shipbuilding.

The big “disaster” of my era is the LPD-17. But the LPD-17 saga, according to Navy Institute Uber-Scribe and author of the Naval Institute Guide to Combat Fleets of the World, Eric Wertheim, is not unique.

Wertheim was quoted in the LPD-17 article I was quoted in and discussed earlier this week. About the LPD-17 he said:

“Certainly the Navy hasn’t seen this level of operational shortfall in a very long time,” Wertheim said. “But it’s not totally unprecedented. There’ve been other programs that have started off this bad but that have gone on to eventually be considered a success.”

I disagree. Let’s look at the record.

One of the worst class-wide misfires were the four 3300ish ton Mitscher-class destroyers (variously called Destroyer Leaders or Frigates). They were the first destroyers built after World War II. Ambitious projects, they pioneered an advanced, high-pressure steam plant, but boasted a number of creature comforts to soften the unenviable life of destroyer crews. Yet, after all the hype, the ships were, for years, a semi-functional mess.

The first skipper of the USS Willis A. Lee, Frederick H. Schneider, arrived at his newly-built command only to discover that builders’ trials had been canceled–as an economy measure (!!). The officer got the trials reinstated, and discovered–much to everyone’s chagrin–problems so significant that the ship had to endure 14 separate builders trials. According to Volume 6 of the oft-underestimated “Contributions to Naval History” series (available here):

Virtually all of the machinery gave trouble–the low-pressure turbines to such a degree that they had to be cut out of the ship and returned to the manufacturer. The other three ships suffered similar difficulties. On Mitscher, “All four main ship service steam generators had to be replaced (four months in the yard) after one unit ran away during lighting off and the turbine exploded…Fragments came within inches of rupturing a main steam line, which would have killed everyone in the space.” When the ship attempted a shakedown cruise to Guantanamo Bay, the reduction gears for the starboard engine failed utterly. One of the officers remembered, “I made my slowest ocean voyage (nine knots) in the Navy’s fastest ship (thirty-five knots).” Reportedly, all of the ships operated for a time under a speed restriction of 20 knots because of the gear problem.

In service, the four frigates certainly presented challenges to their crews. One officer remembered of his tour on board the John S. McCain (DL 3), “Boiler casualties were a weekly, if not daily, experience. Nearly as unreliable were the ship’s service generators. In McCain, we often went to sea utilizing the auxiliary diesel generators for power and lighting just to avoid remaining dockside. ”

Another officer who served on board the lead frigate recalled, “The final humiliation for the Mitscher came…when her forced circulation boilers [which] had been a terrible headache since commissioning finally failed so badly that the ship could not produce enough feed water to make up for the leaks. She was taken under tow by one of her Dealey-class DE escorts, while another Dealey steamed along side pumping feed water to her.” Mitscher and John S. McCain had to be completely reboilered.

Ugly stuff, no?

It is true that the two Mitschers that got new boilers did good service–and came to be reliable stalwarts of the fleet, serving from 1953-1978. But the two others disappeared after an ignominious 15 years.

The Mitschers though, were technological pioneers, and introduced some major new technologies to the fleet (particularly the high-pressure steam boilers that paved the way for adoption by later Navy frigates). They were also built during the Korean War–just as the Navy was struggling to 1) get a single procurement program underway during the post WWII naval drawdown, 2) withstand enormous fiscal and industrial-base pressure and 3) find sufficient qualified manpower to serve in a fleet that was rapidly re-commissioning ships from

the Mothball Fleet–and sending ’em to war.

The LPD-17, on the other hand, did not pave much new ground, and was built in comparatively less difficult circumstances. The fact that the LPD-17 wasn’t a technological showpiece–and cost the U.S. an enormous opportunity to become the supplier-of-choice for the massive global build-up of amphibious platforms is a terrible–and I think unforgivable–tragedy.

Explaining the LPD-17 fiasco away as just another in a long line of smaller-scale shipbuilding hiccups is wrong. The LPD-17 fiasco, I think, is unprecedented. Pointing to history–leafing through the pages of “Six Frigates”, say–only serves to minimize the deep strategic, cultural and operational failings that stained the LPD-17 program.

Rather than dismiss the LPD-17 as a problem solved, let’s study this fiasco. Let’s enshrine it. Name names. Interview people responsible. Get a book written–and make it into a scary bedtime story that wizened shipbuilders and wily old Admirals use to scare young welders and fresh-faced Ensigns.

It’s the only way to keep history from, you know, repeating.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Jon Harris March 20, 2011 at 3:23 pm

Are the LCSs the MITSCHER of this generation as well? Both classes abandoned the incremental improvement approach in their design. What do the MITSCHERs have in common with a GEARING? Just as what does the FREEDOM have in common with a PERRY? (Yes, despite the sexy designation, the LCS is a frigate in every way but title.) The FREEDOM is having more than her due of teething problems, and, as yet, has no real combat capability.


Craig Hooper March 4, 2011 at 11:34 am

Yeah…same story with the LPD-17s…

When will one of then get yanked home by one of our tugs…


Comrade Misfit March 3, 2011 at 6:32 pm

There was a story once that one of the Mitschers was getting ready to deploy to Westpac. The navigator was reviewing his chart allowance and saw that they didn’t have any Indian Ocean charts. So he had his QM2 go to the chart-issuing place to get a set. The QM2 came back empty handed.

The navigator (this was in the day when the navigator was a j.o.) went over himself to find out why they couldn’t get a set of I.O. charts. The chief there looked at him and said: “Sir, you don’t need them, because there ain’t no seagoing tugs in the I.O.”

Those ships were pigs, any way you slice it. They had a rep for casualties large and small. At least one of them went through most of deployment having to steer by use of her engines. They all should have been sent to the breakers right from the shipyard.


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