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A decade later, problems remain with stealth performance of Virginia-class submarines, lawsuit says

Virginia-class submarines (U.S. D.O.D/WikiCommons)
October 20, 2019

The Navy’s top procurement officer expressed optimism in 2011 that Virginia-class submarines would stop shedding their outer skin, consisting of a sonar-absorbing material that makes them harder to detect.

But a federal lawsuit refiled Tuesday said the problem has remained unsolved and casts blame on shipbuilder Huntington Ingalls Industries, alleging the company falsified testing, inspection results and certifications on multi-billion dollar submarine contracts.

The case was reported earlier this month. Due to procedural concerns, it had to be refiled by Tuesday in a Florida federal court.

Naval analysts who have looked at the case since it first made headlines would not discuss the substance of the charges. They said problems with submarine hull coatings are an ongoing challenge, not just for the U.S. Navy. This appears to be a chronic shortcoming in a multi-billion-dollar program, one that the Navy trumpets as a success.

The case is being brought by Ari Lawrence, a former company engineer who says he was fired for raising concerns about hull coating processes and procedures. The company will vigorously fight the charges, said Jennifer Boykin, president of HII’s Newport News Shipbuilding division. She noted the Justice Department investigated Lawrence’s claims and declined to join the case.

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Defense consultant Craig Hooper has studied problems with hull coatings for years.

“It’s one of these things where it seems deceptively simple,” he said. “But it has a lot of variables.”

A submarine is essentially a metal tube that contracts and expands while moving through water at different depths, he said. Older submarines were covered by tiles that can fall off. Virginia-class subs employ a coating applied in large swaths called “mold-in-place, special hull treatment.”

It creates a smoother surface and was thought to be cheaper, faster and more durable. It is designed to be “anechoic,” able to absorb waves of active sonar. It also reduces interior noise, making the boat more difficult to detect by passive or listening methods.

But the coating might contract or expand at a different rate than the sub, or it could become less flexible over time, Hooper says.

“Any adhesive used in this environment is going to have its work cut out for it,” he said. “Obviously something in this system failed.”

H.I. Sutton wrote about the case for Forbes in an article headlined “U.S. Navy Submarines May Have Stealth Problems, But They’re Not Alone.”

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Some British submarines have similar issues, he said. Some Russian submarines have titanium hulls, which seem to make things worse. They are covered by tiles and the Russians have been slow to replace them, creating recognizable patches.

“These patches are so reliable that they can be used to identify the individual submarine,” he wrote.

When the exterior coating fails on Virginia-class subs, it can come away in large pieces.

A 2017 story in the Honolulu Star-Advertiser reported problems on the USS Mississippi, a Virginia-class boat commissioned in 2012. That story was cited in a recent Congressional Research Service report as something for Congress to consider.

The Lawrence lawsuit cites Navy photographs taken this past April of a recently constructed Virginia-class boat, which isn’t named, that “shows extensive failures of the exterior hull coating system.”

The lawsuit says these defects put sailors’ lives at risk. Hooper has a more nuanced view.

A Virginia-class attack sub doesn’t need sonar-absorbing material to fight pirates, drug smugglers or ISIS. But as the U.S. pivots to confront high-tech threats from Russia and China, “the Navy needs every advantage it can get,” he said.

“As it has been explained to me, the failure of anechoic coating is not the end of the world — one can operate at slower speeds to reduce banging or flapping,” he said.

However, a fight against a high-tech opponent might require extra “silent speed” that a compromised coating couldn’t handle. That’s where sailors lives could be in danger.

Even though submarine hull coatings are complex and problematic, at some point there needs to be progress.

“If this issue was detected in 2006-7, it’s been more than a decade,” Hooper said. “We have sunk billions into the Virginia class, and it is high time the Virginia class subs met or exceeded their original performance objectives.”

HII’s Newport News shipyard makes nuclear-powered Virginia-class subs in a unique partnership with General Dynamics Electric Boat of Groton, Conn. Each yard builds components of the sub, then take turns in final assembly and delivery.

Newport News and EB are the only two shipyards capable of building the submarines, which are in high demand by Navy commanders. The Navy buys the subs in bulk, or “blocks,” to save money. The Navy has expanded its purchases from one to two per year.

The Navy started reporting problems with the hull coating in 2007 with the USS Virginia, the first submarine of the class, according to the lawsuit. When it happened on three of the first four subs, the Navy initiated an investigation.

In January 2011, Vice Adm. Kevin M. McCoy, commander of Naval Sea Systems Command, the Navy’s ship-buying and maintenance arm, said, “We think, for the most part, those issues are behind us.”

The Navy has not commented on the Lawrence allegations, citing the ongoing litigation. There are indications that they are continuing to look at the stealth.

A May 2016 news release from the Congressional Submarine Caucus hailed the USS South Dakota and its “acoustic superiority features.”

Those improvements include a special coating and machine quieting improvements. The sub was commissioned earlier this year.

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© 2019 the Daily Press