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rusty navy supply ship

USNS Alan Shepard (T-AKE-3), US Navy Lewis and Clark Class Dry Cargo Ship Transits the Johor Strait via @StraitsSights

Top Navy Admiral Wants Rust-Free Ships

John Konrad
Total Views: 94815
April 28, 2022

by Captain John Konrad (gCaptain) In an interview with the US Naval Institute, the US Chief Of Naval Operations (CNO) Admiral Mike Gilday, addressed the issue of US Navy ships returning to port covered in rust, saying that rust-free ships are critical for deterrence and naval readiness.

“On the appearance side, you have to be ready, you have to look like you mean business,” said the Vice Admiral Peter Daly of USNI. “Now that COVID has eased off and port calls are less restrictive, is there time to lay to and paint?”

The question comes after many photos of rust-worn American naval ships have hit the internet, with the latest being the USNS Alan Shepard, a Military Sealift Command supply ship named in honor of the first American in space, photographed in the Singapore Strait looking worn, tired, and streaked with rust.

Many have blamed COVID but the problem extends back before the coronavirus choked supply lines and squeezed US Navy operations. “The nonchalant attitude many are taking to the physical condition of the public-facing part of our Navy is, in a word, disgraceful,” said former surface warfare officer Commander Salamander back in 2019. “I’m not quite sure when our culture decided that doing less with worse was acceptable – where for your wants NOW, you will saddle future leaders who follow you with the Bondo, duct tape, and baling wire remediation you did to get by – but here we are.”

And Sal is not alone. Many articles have been written about a lack of attention to detail in the modern navy. “We have become the worst-looking Navy in the world — with no competition,” said longtime naval journalist and commentator Chris Cavas in a Tasked and Purpose article last year. “When you look at a ship from a European navy or the Chinese navy, for example, they will make that ship pristine before it deploys.”

This is readiness, This is deterrence

In response to the question today, Admiral Gilday gave a strong response about the importance of a good-looking fleet.

“This is part of readiness, it is part of (deterrence) absolutely,” said Admiral Gilday when asked about the rusty ship photos. “Appearance is important. I mean, you got to look sharp. We are the world’s premier Navy. We’ve got to look like it. This comes down to our, get real get better campaign for people to self assess and self-correct, for people to stand up and take action when they see stuff wrong, and not accept stuff that’s broken. Do what you can to fix it, if you can’t elevate it, the chain of command ought to be listening. They ought to be listening to your proposed solutions.”

Military Sealift Officers Speak Out

Support from the top is critical and Admiral Gilday’s message on the importance of appearance could not be stronger but gCaptain reached out to senior officers assigned to TAKE supply ships like the USNS Alan Shepard and they expressed anger at the CNO’s remarks.

“I could have guessed he would say that!” said one longtime supply ship officer. “There are 29 ships to support hundreds of Navy ships, and Military Sealift Command (MSC) supply ships are at sea a lot load more than the average Navy vessel. Sometimes MSC has to run a tanker halfway across the Indian Ocean to do an underway replenishment because they need the Navy warship underway for training instead of pulling in and getting fuel. When do we have time to paint?”

“An AKE like the Shepard should have 129 crewmembers in perfect conditions but they are now running at roughly 80% because of manning problems,” said another MSC officer. “About 20 in the deck department can be assigned to rust prevent duty. However, that crew is also assigned to Underway Replenishment duties. Three Unreps could easily eat away an entire day. When we return to port can we OSPHO? No. Can I send a crewmember over the side to chip? No. Navy rules prevent it.”

Get Real Get Better

Most upsetting to the crew we shared this video with is Gilday’s comment, “people stand up and take action when they see stuff wrong, and not accept stuff that’s broken. Do what you can to fix it, if you can’t elevate it up the chain of command.”

To that, one civilian Merchant Marine officer responded “Can’t he see it? Can’t everyone see it? Isn’t that the problem? Has he been to Norfolk or San Diego recently? It’s not just Military Sealift Command ships but combatants that look rusty too. If one Marine is standing guard outside an embassy with ketchup on his shirt, that’s his fault. But if dozens of Marines around the world look sloppy that’s a system failure.”

Offshore Lessons Not Learned

The offshore industry tried a similar approach in the early 2000’s with its “Stop For Safety” campaign. As part of that campaign, all crew members were given stop cards with safety checklists and were empowered to stop unsafe activities at any time. That program, however, failed to catch problems that “everyone knows about” and failed to prevent the Deepwater Horizon explosion. The problem with these types of systems was analyzed in Earl Boebert’s book Deepwater Horizon: A Systems Analysis published by Harvard.

Boert could help Admiral Gilday navigate the problems but the US Navy doesn’t like to take notes from the civilian world of shipping. Last week gCaptain interviewed a senior manager for Shell Oil who worked on the Prelude FLNG project, the largest and most complicated offshore structure ever built, a ship larger and more complicated than an aircraft carrier. He said the Navy did send representatives to Korea in the early stage of the build but never followed up, or showed much interest in the project.

(Editorial Note: The fact nobody we interviewed would go on the record speaks volumes for US Navy culture and the current state of relations between Admirals and their civilian shipping industry peers.)

“A few navy representatives showed up early on to check the box,” he said. “We did many new and innovative things I’m proud of and we made a lot of mistakes too but the Navy never conducted a real analysis of lessons learned.”

The Prelude is applicable to paint and marine coatings because it lives offshore with no port time, crew safety restrictions exceeding those of the Navy, and the ship is so large it can never visit drydock so the coatings are designed to last 50 years.

Our Shipyards Are Full And Lethal

Boert’s book could help the Navy because the problems it faces are not linear in nature. A perfect storm has descended on the world’s premier Navy and rust is just one symptom of larger systemic problems. From manning issues to overextended deployments, from budget issues to not enough ships being built, with no national maritime strategy, the US Navy is suffering from a cacophony of problems after playing second fiddle for nearly two decades to a land-focused war on terror.

In an interview with top marine coatings experts gCaptain learned that environmental restrictions have forced suppliers to remove some of the nasty chemicals contained in marine paint, nasty substances that prevent rust. That’s a good thing. The problem is that the commercial world has compensated for the lack of nasty chemicals with new technology and paint application systems which have been quickly adopted by the commercial world but are stuck in the quagmire of the Navy’s cumbersome acquisition process.

Even if the CNO or President Biden issued an executive order cutting through red tape and allowing shipyards to use new types of paint, our nation’s repair shipyards are riddled with delays. The problem is so bad that some commercial shipping companies working on the Pentagon’s Maritime Security Program would rather pay a heavy program penalty to use Chinese shipyards instead of American ones. Most recently this has resulted in one Navy/MARAD subsidized ship being stuck in a Chinese shipyard for months during the ongoing lockdown.

Crews aboard that ship say, despite the fact they haul critical materials for the US Navy and TRANSCOM, little has been done by the Navy to dissuade them from using Chinese shipyards or help them escape the lockdown.

The situation is not much better for American shipyards. On the morning of April 11, Captain Brent Gaut, the commander of the USS George Washington — an aircraft carrier undergoing major shipyard work at Newport News, Virginia — got on the ship’s intercom to announce that two sailors had died, and Gaut was alerting the crew that those deaths were the eighth and ninth suicides the ship had experienced in the nine months the ship has been stuck in shipyard. What was the Navy’s response? Gilday’s top enlisted adviser, Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy Russell Smith, told sailors they need to do a better job “managing expectations” then he chastised them by saying “What you’re not doing is sleeping in a foxhole like a Marine.”

This type of “toughen up, stand up” approach sounds eerily familiar to those of us who worked offshore in the years leading up to the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe.

In 2020, while undergoing shipyard repair in San Diego, conditions aboard the USS Bonhomme Richard were so bad a crew member set fire to the ship leading to the ship’s destruction. The responsible crew member was arrested but – despite investigators finding bad morale, delays, and poor training – the ship’s captain (and his chain of command) was left in charge and was allowed to celebrate the decommissioning of the ship he had lost.

If our shipyards are so full the US Navy is allowing military subsidized ships to get painted in China. If crews can’t use new types of paint, If crews are restricted from using OSPHO (a mild acid used to clean up rust stains) in port or bosuns chairs over the side if we don’t have enough supply ships or crew on those supply ships if crews are committing suicide and arson because of conditions at shipyards tasked with painting old ships if the Navy doesn’t seek out the advice of commercial professionals at companies that have solved the problem like Shell if the Army and Air Force continue to get all the attention in Ukraine despite the heaviest fighting taking place in the littorals and ports – I could go on – how can individual sailors “stand up and be ready” to combat rust?

Frustration In The Ranks

But the last comment was most disturbing of all, “Dude come on, are you going to post that photo of the Shepard to gCaptain?” said a senior Navy Military Sealift Command Officer. “I literally had the commodore knocking on my gangway asking why my #### was rusty. Those posts just trickle down to the ship’s Chief Mates who are already overwhelmed.”

To Admiral Gilday we say the same thing: Dude, come on

Admiral Gilday Interview Video

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