Saturday July 23, 2011

PITTSFIELD -- Despite the discovery of "aggressive corrosion" in the first of the Navy’s new combat ships designed to operate along the coast, it’s clear sailing ahead for the General Dynamics project to design the systems for 10 vessels to be built by Austal USA in Mobile, Ala.

The Navy confirmed this week that the first ship, the $653 million, aluminum-hulled U.S.S. Independence, has undergone temporary repairs allowing it to operate until a permanent fix can be made at a shipyard next year.

A "cathodic protection system," designed to prevent the corrosion that occurs when steel and aluminum touch in seawater which creates electrolysis, will be installed on the Independence, and all new littoral ships designed in Pittsfield and built in Mobile, said Navy Public Information Officer Christopher G. Johnson in Washington, D.C.

"We’re not changing the terms of any contracts," Johnson said. "We’ll continue buying the ships. We discovered the issue early and we had expected it might come up."

Despite the "aggressive corrosion" description -- which means a rapidly spreading problem, Johnson described the corrosion as "a relatively minor amount."

Nevertheless, as first reported by Bloomberg News, seven senators raised "concerns about the viability" of the project in a letter delivered last week to Pentagon Acquisitions Chief Ashton Carter. The letter suggested fleet-wide repairs would be required.

Capt. Kate Mueller, a public affairs officer for the Pentagon, told The Eagle that a response to the letter is being prepared, but it’s not likely to be made public.

General Dynamics representatives in Pittsfield declined comment on the issue, referring questions to the Navy.

The letter was signed by Republicans Scott Brown of Massachusetts, John McCain of Arizona, Tom Coburn of Oklahoma and Rob Portman of Ohio. Democrats Jim Webb of Virginia, Claire McCaskill of Missouri and Mark Begich of Alaska also signed. All except Coburn are Senate Armed Services Committee members.

Earlier this year, the Navy reported hull cracking on the first littoral combat ship, Lockheed Martin Corp.’s Freedom.

"The frequency with which this information is coming out about major structural deficiencies is disturbing," the senators’ letter stated.

"This could be a very serious setback," Norman Polmar, an independent naval analyst and author in Alexandria, Va., told Bloomberg News. "If the ship develops a serious flaw, they’re not going to continue producing them."

The permanent fix involves drydocking the Independence and removing its water jets, which power the propulsion system, the Navy explained in a written statement.

According to Polmar, aluminum-hulled ships are more vulnerable to rust than steel-hulled vessels. "But I’m surprised it happened so early," he said. "This ship is brand new."

Missions for the 55 planned littoral combat ships include mine-clearing, submarine-tracking and aiding in humanitarian relief.

General Dynamics in Pittsfield went on a hiring spree starting in December when the Navy awarded contracts for the ships.

On May 31, Gov. Deval Patrick and U.S. Rep. John Olver, D-Amherst, visited General Dynamics Advanced Information Systems in Pittsfield to celebrate the hiring of 108 employees in 100 days.

The company has predicted the total of new hires could reach 500 over the next five years. As of last month, there were 1,159 emoloyees on the Pittsfield campus.

So far, General Dynamics and Austal USA, a subsidiary of the Australia-based shipbuilder, are under contract to build 10 ships, while Lockheed Martin also has a contract for 10. After the first 20 are completed, the Navy plans to put another contract out to bid.