In Press: Talking LPD-17’s rehab in the Virginian-Pilot

by Craig Hooper on February 28, 2011

Until last year, one of the most annoying things about being a long-standing LPD-17 critic was the constant push-back from pro-LPD-17 partisans (my criticism began here and, oh, here). There is no denying that the LPD-17, as planned, is a capable and exciting platform. The only problem, which the Virginian-Pilot’s Navy scribe Corinne Reilly details in a great summary of the LPD-17 program woes, is that nothing went as planned–and nobody in the Navy had the guts to get out ahead of this program and solve it. As this gold-plated program went off the rails, some in the Navy Community even came to believe their own PR hype–all while hiding the extent of the programmatic failures.

Look, I’m fine when an organization like the Navy is a little bit cagey on operational details or tends to highlight the positive. That’s normal. But there comes a time when the problems get so big continued “whitewashing” can seriously impact wider national security policy. I mean, read this–a previously undisclosed tale from the USS San Antonio’s 2009 deployment–and wonder just how bad things could have gotten–the Navy’s newest ship shutting down the Suez Canal? The strategic consequences would have been enormous. From the Virginian-Pilot:

As the ship made a critical pass through the Suez Canal, something malfunctioned. With the starboard engine full ahead, the port engine slipped into full reverse, effectively placing a twist on the ship. For a few breathless moments, only two outcomes seemed possible: crash into an oncoming vessel, or run the San Antonio aground.

In the end, all that saved the Navy from an embarrassing and potentially deadly international incident was the crew members’ experience; by then they’d endured so many breakdowns that they’d grown accustomed to recovering from them.

A short time later, the U.S. State Department sent representatives aboard. How could this have happened? they wanted to know. How could a brand-new warship be so broken?

My part in the article was to note that the Navy refused to acknowledge there was a problem–and, I might add, they attacked those who dared to point out that the Navy’s new amphib had, in effect, no clothes.

“The number of different things that appear to have gone wrong on this program is what makes it such a big deal,” said Craig Hooper, a national security strategist and defense consultant. “First, the government accepted a bad product, and then when the testers started reporting serious flaws, the Navy rushed to say the ship was ready instead of fixing it.”

Well, with the appointment of Admiral Harvey, times are changing. I really appreciate that Admiral Harvey forced a pause on the LPD-17 Program and is pulling out the stops to make this program “well”–or at least as well as the LPD-17 Program can ever be:

“Everybody flunked,” he said. “We were slow to put it all together and take the coherent set of actions that needed to be taken to get the ship squared away, so there’s been this long period of discovery.”

But Harvey also said the San Antonio has turned an important corner: For the first time, the Navy is no longer uncovering new, serious flaws, and the list of repairs is getting shorter.

Work is expected to wrap up by April, at which time the crew has been told to expect rigorous sea tests.

“We’ve reached bottom,” Harvey said. “We now know with a high degree of confidence what truly was the extent of the issues.

“I think we’ve got San Antonio figured out.”

About time. We will see if the USS San Antonio survives the three weeks of sea trials ahead. And I challenge Admiral Harvey and the Navy, right here and right now, to be forthright about the results. With these flawed ships nobody expects perfection–fairly functional is fine. But what we in the peanut gallery would really like is honesty.


Because, with the LPD-17, brutal honesty (or a major public screw-up like the Suez incident or the LPD-17s incredible Dubai maintenance stint) seems to be the only way to goad the Navy to really, well, uh, get this festering disaster fixed.

That said, I worry that Admiral Harvey is learning the wrong lesson from the LPD-17 fiasco. Read:

“I think the lesson of San Antonio,” Harvey said, “is that we can get it right if we take the time to do it right. We can never be so anxious to get a ship into service that we assume away the fundamentals that it takes to get there.”

Make no mistake. The problem with LPD-17 was not timing. Neither the LPD-17 program nor the USS San Antonio were rushed–they both were almost totally unhurried, falling far, far behind schedule. The ultimate problem with the LPD-17 was that the Navy had an institutional problem with the truth. Nobody dared to speak up or fix the program until the problems grew so big they couldn’t be hidden.

So, with that, I earnestly hope Admiral Harvey is working to solve this troubling Navy habit and is cognizant that root cause of the LPD-17 woes rests in the fact that the

Navy sometimes just can’t handle the truth.

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