U.S. Navy’s “Brand New” Aluminum Ship: Foiled by Seawater

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USS Freedom (top) and USS Independence / Navy photos

You can’t make this stuff up: the Navy concedes the first vessel in its latest fleet of warships — the 18-month old USS Independence (not to be confused with the late aircraft carrier sporting the same name) — is suffering from “aggressive” corrosion. Both the Navy and the ship-builder say it’s no big deal, and to be expected when steel and aluminum components slosh around together in salt water. Like in an ocean, for example.

The Navy, eager to keep its fleet numbers up, is now buying two competing versions of these so-called Littoral Combat Ships. The planned $37.4 billion buy of 55 of the corvette-like (3,000-ton, 75 crew) vessels emphasizes coastal warfare instead of the blue-ocean mayhem their bigger brothers and sisters — frigates, destroyers, cruisers and aircraft carriers — are built to fight. Unfortunately, the first LCS built by (Australian-owned) Austal Ltd. in Mobile, Ala., is an aluminum-hulled trimaran that has been corroding into the sea. “I’m surprised it happened so early,” naval scholar Norm Polmar told Bloomberg News. “This ship is brand new.”

The Navy says the problem is manageable, and, besides that, Austal says, it’s the Navy’s fault (it also issued a painful-to-read statement suggesting it’s nothing new). Both agree such teething problems aren’t unusual in a new class of vessels. But the salt-water rot could give foes of aluminum vessels a weapon. “It gives fodder to people who for so long have said that buying an aluminum ship would be problematic for the Navy,” Jay Korman, of the Washington D.C.-based Avascent Group, told the Mobile Press-Register, the shipyard’s hometown paper. “It’s a perception issue as much as structural issue.”

Of course, it may be tough for Austal’s competitor — a Lockheed-Martin led (but Italian-owned) team building a steel-hulled LCS in a Wisconsin yard — to brag: its first ship, the USS Freedom, suffered a major crack in its hull during sea trials earlier this year. Maybe when they fix these ships the Navy can rechristen them: the USS Independence From Corrosion and the USS Freedom From Cracking.