In praise of heavy weather and breaking stuff

by Craig Hooper on March 25, 2011

One of the underestimated pieces of infrastructure in the American warfighter’s toolkit is, well, their meteorologists. It’s neat to be able to have an up-to-the-minute global read on the weather, so ships and aircraft can know–at a very, very high level of detail, where to go to avoid tough sea conditions or bad weather.

The U.S. Navy’s reliance on forecasters saves an enormous amount of wear and tear on ships and crews–and it must be a great relief knowing that the days of Halsey’s Typoon are past.

But is the Navy over-relying on our meteorological backup?

To some extent, the Navy’s forecasting infrastructure has enabled the development of what I’ll call an operational “Glass Jaw”–that is, the tolerance of operational margins that are insufficient to withstand heavy weather operations.

Take, oh, the Osprey–it’s long-fought struggle to kludge some type of functional de-icing system together led to some interesting weather-based operational restrictions/habits so the aircraft could avoid icing conditions. There are other examples, too–I mean, just how many of our successful Aegis Missile-Defense launches have been held in heavy seas? (Ahh…”Chirp” goeth them crickets…) I could go on–but it’s clear that the Navy simply can’t keep operating in a way that depends upon ready knowledge of the weather.

As I wrote back in 2009, the Navy’s demand for high-fidelity, just-in-time weather forecasts are:

“…tying us into an unhealthy dependence upon our weather centers. Our weather satellites. Our downlinks. Our meteorological service providers. What a fun prospect for a single point failure! Under the right circumstances, it’d be Halsey’s Typhoon all over again–but with ships far less able to take a weather beating.”


“The trends are not reassuring. As up-n-coming surface warfare officers focus their energy on on the twin power points of limiting energy consumption and controlling wear-n’-tear, we’ll not see commanders roar off into high seas too often–even if, in some cases, sneaking around in a storm might prove a force multiplier. Will ship drivers have enough familiarity and comfort operating in a storm to utilise weather’s potential tactical advantages?

(Or have we decided that weather no longer offers the cover it once did?)

As our operational expertise vanishes, the design will follow–we simply won’t design for the worst because we’ll soon not have enough operational experience with bad weather to know better. It’s the Airbus problem, redux.

I’d hope this ugly set of anti-heavy weather trends would change a bit as some of the smaller ships enter service. But how robust are these ships going to be? Will they be tech-heavy but glass-jawed, unable to stand the pounding? We’re already seeing durability problems in the NSC-1 and NSC-2 designs. Without draconian measures those two ships would be unlikely to survive five years of service (and, even now, the fix is probably, gamed by reducing the total time these platforms operate). We’ll see if LCS-1 or 2 will be any different.”

Well, that leads to the recent report of a heavy-weather-induced hull crack in the LCS-1. Now, all you readers know that I am no fan of LCS-1, but I am thrilled to see that LCS-1 is being run hard enough to break things. This is exactly what the LCS program needs, and though the results (a hull crack and leak) are disconcerting for those tracking LCS-1 manufacturing/design quality, the only way to fix it is to, well, discover the error in the first place. I expect LCS-2 to endure it’s share of slamming and banging, too.

But before we start grabbing our pitchforks and heading out to burn the LCS on the programmatic stake, it pays to put this episode into context.

Am I the only one to remember that the DDG-51s–the much-loved backbone of the fleet–had some trouble standing up to heavy weather lately? Anybody recall that bow slamming of the USS Gridley (DDG-101)? How the ship, a mere seven months after commissioning and with a single Miami-to-San Diego transit under her belt, suffered “significant” structural damage in 2007? And that the design problem had been known (and likely managed by changing operational parameters for an entire ship class) since 1993?

How quickly we forget.

So, while I am upset to see the LCS-1 taking on water, I am glad to see that the Navy is putting these new

ships through their paces now–and hopefully the Admirals in charge will have sufficient fortitude to enact necessary fixes today rather than waiting until the fleet has to wrestle with the challenge of fixing an enormous number of glass-jawed vessels (and no gaming the “presumed days operational” like the Coast Guard has done to “address” structural flaws in NSC 1 and 2).

The Navy no longer has sufficient resources to tolerate avoidable quality problems or design shortcomings. Find and fix now to avoid future failures in the dark financial wilderness of the 2020s.

This all leads back to something else that the Navy has not really “dealt” with yet–the bad welding scandals that have plagued the Northrop Grumman yards. Sure, “critical” welds are ok, but when will the bill for the poor-spec “not-so-critical-yet” welds come due? It worries me–and I don’t get the sense anybody in the Navy has really grappled with that stealth maintenance challenge–but we needn’t look beyond the recent dis-masting of the USS Gravely (DDG 107) to realize that this unsolved welding scandal is going to end poorly.

So readers, I throw it over to you…what other “Glass Jaw” systems/platforms are out there? What other systems have been overly harnessed to the promise of sunny skies and glassy, unfouled seas?

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

ET2(SW) March 28, 2011 at 6:47 pm

Spending hours reading navy instructions on cold ship operation, I was disappointed that my tour never took DD-989 into near-freezing seas. I always wondered what the effect of freezing spray would have on the various mobile antennas on board (span-wire , OE-82, , SPS-40, etc.) I also wondered aloud to a USNA professor what the effect of suspended plastics in seawater intermingling with F-76 would have on turbine operation and lifespan (same crickets). I agree some parameters were either left out of ship design or discovered well after the product enters service.


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