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Costs rise more than $100 billion to maintain Navy ships with clogging toilets and other issues

John M. Donnelly, CQ-Roll Call on

Published in News & Features

WASHINGTON -- The Navy recently decided to use a different sewage system on its two newest aircraft carriers, one that is modeled on the toilets in commercial aircraft.

But flushing for more than 4,000 people living aboard a carrier turned out to be a harder job than it is on a jetliner. Now the massive ships require regular acid flushes -- at $400,000 each -- just to keep things flowing.

The current and future price for that particular failure of foresight is not yet known. But the wider cost of addressing unexpected operating and support issues for Navy warships is now coming into clearer view, thanks to a Government Accountability Office audit made public Tuesday.

For six classes of U.S. surface ships and submarines, the Navy's estimated cost of maintenance over the ships' lives is more than $100 billion higher than it was when full-scale development of the vessels began. For four of the six classes, that cost is more than 50% higher than the earlier estimate.

The GAO's 106-page report cited at least 150 unpredicted maintenance problems across Navy fleets, including glitches that individually required scores of millions of dollars to fix.

For instance, on the San Antonio class of amphibious ships -- which ferry Marines, their vehicles and gear -- another plumbing problem arose.


In that case, the Navy decided to use a new type of pipe, made of titanium, to pump seawater used for cooling equipment and firefighting, the GAO said. But the new pipes are susceptible to so-called biofouling -- including shellfish growing inside them -- and so the pipes must be chlorinated and then de-chlorinated. The total cost for doing this on all the ships is estimated to be $250 million.

In another costly example, the Navy failed to analyze the reliability of a special covering for its Virginia class attack subs, and some of the coverings have come off. The cost of repairs for 11 subs is $735 million, the audit said.

'The quantity and breadth of issues identified in this report -- resulting in billions of dollars in unexpected costs, maintenance delays, and unreliable ships -- suggest that existing policies and guidance have not ensured that new ships are reliable and can be sustained as planned," the report said.

Typically, about 70% of the costs of any Pentagon weapons program occur during its operation, as opposed to its acquisition. In recognition of this reality, the Defense Department and Congress have worked hard to place more emphasis on controlling support costs, with some progress -- but not enough, particularly in the Navy's case, the audit reported.


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