Northrop Navy Ships `Not Survivable' in Combat, Official Says
Northrop Grumman Corp.’s $1.68 billion amphibious warship, designed to transport Marines close to shore, wouldn’t be effective in combat and couldn’t operate reliably after being hit by enemy fire, according to the Department of Defense’s top testing official.
The San Antonio-class vessel’s critical systems, such as electrical distribution, ship-wide fiber optics and voice- communications networks, aren’t reliable, according to Michael Gilmore, the Defense Department’s director of operational test and evaluation. The ship’s armaments can’t effectively defend against the most modern anti-ship weapons, Gilmore said.
The ship is capable of operating “in a benign environment,” Gilmore said in an e-mail to Bloomberg News outlining the unclassified summary of a classified report sent to Congress in June. The vessel is “not effective, suitable and not survivable in a combat situation,” he said.
The craft’s capabilities are being questioned as at least four private-equity firms are exploring bids to buy Los Angeles- based Northrop’s shipbuilding unit.
Northrop Chief Executive Officer Wes Bush announced in July the possible sale or spinoff of the unit that operates three shipyards in Louisiana, Mississippi and Virginia. Northrop is the biggest maker of U.S. Navy vessels.
Northrop spokesman Randy Belote referred questions about the department’s test report to the Navy, which said it’s aware of the reported deficiencies and is making corrections that will be tested next year.
“The majority of corrective actions have been implemented across the class and other corrections are in process,” Navy spokeswoman Lieutenant Callie Ferrari said in an e-mail. “It would be inappropriate to comment on the specifics.”
The test report is the latest black eye for a program that has faced reliability and construction questions since the first of the ships -- the USS San Antonio, also called the LPD-17 -- was delivered in 2005, more than three years behind schedule.
Then-Navy Secretary Donald Winter, himself a former Northrop executive, said in July 2007 the company had “serious quality problems” with the program.
The San Antonio has been undergoing repairs since December at the Navy’s Norfolk, Virginia, shipyard to make it seaworthy next year at a cost that’s increased to at least $39 million from an initial $5 million estimate, said Chris Johnson, a Navy spokesman.
Northrop’s Avondale, Louisiana, yard has delivered five of the 11 planned San Antonio-class vessels in the $18.5 billion program, three of which have been deployed on missions. Four more are under construction. Contracts for the 10th and 11th vessels haven’t been signed.
Trade Center Steel
The ships include the USS New York, which was built with steel from the World Trade Center. The New York’s website says that “self-defense and survivability were crucial elements that influenced ship design,” because the amphibious transport vessels are intended to operate close to shore.
The testing office’s Gilmore, asked to define effectiveness in the context of the LPD-17, Gilmore said it was the “overall degree” to which the vessel can accomplish its missions when used by typical sailors in a combat situation.
“Survivability” for the San Antonio means the degree to which the vessel “is able to avoid or withstand” an attack “without sustaining an impairment” of its ability to accomplish a combat mission, he said.
His conclusion that the San Antonio is “not survivable” doesn’t mean, however, that the hull and structure can’t withstand a blow from an anti-ship missile due to inherent weaknesses, Gilmore said. In fact, the Northrop ship’s hull construction is “improved” in comparison with the four classes of ships it will replace, he said.
Gilmore’s conclusions are based on an assessment of data compiled in combat testing the Navy completed late last year, “previous reports and raw modeling data,” the Navy said in a quarterly program report.
Gilmore’s office in August told Pentagon officials the vessel demonstrated “poor reliability with critical equipment and control systems,” and an “inability to defend itself against a variety of threats.”
Navy test data indicated the vessels demonstrated an inability to “maintain or rapidly recover mission capability” after being hit by “the variety of weapons likely to be encountered,” the testing office said.
Raytheon Co. is a subcontractor providing electronics, a fiber-optics network and an anti-missile system the testing office concluded had “persistent engineering deficiencies.”
The ships have 25,000 square feet of deck space -- more than twice that of the vessels they replace -- and will carry the V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft, amphibious armored vehicles used by Marines, landing craft and as many as 800 Marines.
Northrop yesterday raised its projection for 2010 profit to as much as $7 a share, while analysts surveyed by Bloomberg had estimated $6.86, on average. In July, the company said annual earnings would be as much as $6.80 a share.
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