Show, don’t tell: Circumspection over Virginia Class MIP/SHT woes

by Craig Hooper on January 21, 2011

Daily Press reporter Peter Frost broke the news yesterday that the Navy has put the Virginia-class submarines’ sloughing hull-coating problem “behind” them.  Here’s parts of the interview (full story here):

“Clearly we had problems on the early ships,” said Vice Adm. Kevin M. McCoy, commander of Naval Sea Systems Command, the Navy’s ship-buying and maintenance arm. “We think, for the most part, those issues are behind us.”

…Despite those problems, McCoy insisted that the hull-coating failures have not contributed to operational issues for the submarines, saying “It’s not been a real big deal for us.”

McCoy said the Navy’s investigation revealed “no single smoking gun,” and that he’s “very confident going forward” that the Navy’s fast-attack submarines will retain the thick black coating that helps keep them silent and stealthy.

Affected submarines are being fixed during their normal dry-dock maintenance periods.

Ok, well, I would submit that, since the U.S. is not at war, problems with hull coating “flappers and bangers” are not enormous issues in day-to-day operations. But, in a war or other sensitive activity, noise generated by disintegrating hull coating can become a serious matter.

But is the issue really “behind us”?

Forgive my circumspection, but the Virginia-class subs have become very camera-shy since September–after this blog first noted the tattered exterior of our modern, world-class nuclear attack submarines (here, here and here).

Given the problems the Virginia-class program office has had keeping their statements straight, it would build a lot more confidence if the Navy actually showed observers that the Virginia-class hull coating was actually staying in place.  But the coating isn’t cooperating yet: Here’s a mid-November 2010 story from Hawaii’s Star Advertiser about the USS North Carolina, the last Block I Virginia-class sub:

A problem with a rubber-like exterior coating sloughing off Virginia-class submarines at sea was noticeable on the North Carolina, but was not as bad as the loss on the Texas, which was tied up on the opposite side of the pier.

The Texas returned to Pearl Harbor on Aug. 23 from a three-month deployment to the eastern Pacific with its urethane coating, used to reduce sound, in tatters.

The Hawaii is in Busan at the southeastern tip of the Korean peninsula, officials said.

And the USS Hawaii?  We’ve been watching the USS Hawaii’s Mold-in-Place/Special Hull Treatment (MIP/SHT) failures as she’s popped up around Asia…Well, here’s a picture (one of the few photo releases of a Virginia-class SSN lately) of the USS Hawaii in Guam (Again?), on Dec 30, 2010 (low-rez is above).  Plenty of ripped MIP to see, and that’s all hull treatment that was pristine before the sub left Hawaii barely three months ago. The new Block II Virginias have vanished, though the Navy already reported that the USS New Hampshire and USS New Mexico, commissioned in 2008 and 2010, respectively, have already suffered about 2% failure of the their coating.  That, coupled with the fact that the new Block II subs are not sitting for photos–suggests that the SHT/MIP problem is still with us.

So, in my mind, saying that the problem is “behind us” is premature.  I’d humbly suggest that with some $15 Billion dollars already sunk in now-commissioned Virginia-class boats, that the Navy keep focusing on the SHT/MIP failures (you know, while they monitor some other issues with failure-prone Virginia-class subsystems). Because if the USS Hawaii is any indication, the SHT/MIP fixes still need fixin’. (And, reporters, if you start getting told that legacy sound-reduction tiles fall off too, just, well, take

a close look at photos from returning Los Angeles-class subs.  You’ll see that those boats seem to be returning with their tiles largely intact.)

Somebody in the DOD needs to examine if the Virginia-class hull treatment–which ostensibly saves the fabricator money and time–offers similar benefits to the Navy’s maintenance budget.  Does this new “revolutionary” treatment save the

Navy money?  Did we terminate legacy tiles–hull coating that we’ve, over the past several decades, gotten to be very reliable–for a pricey mess?  To get a long-term two-boat-a-year contract, were sub construction costs pared down to the point where we’ve saddled the Navy with a demanding money pit?  Does the new hull coating demand higher amount of maintenance than the legacy tiles did?

We’ve had the Virginia-class long enough for policymakers to have that answer in hand by now.

It would also be VERY interesting for policymakers to know if, to limit SHT/MIP wear n’ tear, the Virginia-class’ operational envelope has been dialed back. I don’t know, but…If so, that’s no way to put a problem in the rear-view mirror.  It just kicks the problem down the road a bit.

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January 21, 2011 at 9:57 pm

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Moose January 24, 2011 at 7:15 pm

A flight I 688 would have been a better idea. While “any” submarine hull could get data for adhesion, using a Nuke gets you better data more closely aligned with how it would perform on the Virginias. We were already using 691 to test the photonics mast and other Virginia-class gear, why they didn’t use that opportunity to also test the MIP/SHT on her is beyond me.

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Craig Hooper January 23, 2011 at 9:18 pm

Hi moose, great comment as usual. I think it is premature to cheer until 1) the Virginia gets out of refit, and 2) some of the later block II boats get real sea time. With the Navy reporting 7% sht loss on Virginia, 5% on the other Block I boats and 2% on Block II boats (with minimal time at sea), it ain’t time for a victory celebration.

The Admiral says we still do not have a good handle on the cause, either. If we don’t know the root problem, celebration is again premature.

I am hopefull the SHT/MIP offers certain, uh, “advantages” tile-based coating systems cannot offer. Performance-or promise of future performance would make the current teething issues worthwhile. But if this MIP scheme was enacted just to cut production costs or on promises of reducing maintenance…then somebody someplace needs their head examined!

That said, I am with you in wondering why this was not tested someplace. Perfect role for a trial/test/practice SSK or two of our own!

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Moose January 23, 2011 at 4:25 pm

“The new Block II Virginias have vanished…”

Well, that would be their job.

Ok, more seriously 2% is a massive step up from how 774 looked the first couple times she tied up. In regards to the Block 2s, 778 looked fairly clean (I think 1 small chunk was gone to port) after returning from Joint Warrior. 779 and 780 have yet to get serious overseas deployments, so we’ll just have to see how they do.

Block 1 is going to be a problem for awhile because a whole-hull coating needs to be totally redone to really “fix” it. Until each one is hauled out, scraped clean, and re-coated just patching and re-gluing isn’t going to fix it. They won’t go through the trouble of a thorough re-coat until they are pretty sure the problem is completely licked, too.

It was a bone-headed move to not test MIP/SHT on a 688 first, but the that’s nothing that can be fixed at this point. If the problem were not improving, or getting worse, or if the Navy were denying the problem existed, I’d be up in arms.

Don’t be fooled by tiles. We’ve gotten very good with them over time, but they started out pretty poorly. Tile coatings are more expensive to manufacture and more time-consuming to apply, and their coverage is usually inferior compared to MIP. The short-term growing pains/costs won’t be fun, but forgoing those now would be a long-term detriment.

I rather doubt anything was dialed back on the Virginias.

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