When Lube Systems Fail, Will You Go Down With the Ship?

Paul V. Arnold, Noria Corporation

Execute lubrication excellence or face execution? While not as much of a rallying cry as Patrick Henry's “give me liberty or give me death” speech of 1775, comments made this summer by U.S. naval analyst and author Norman Polmar did garner attention for their direct and patriotic nature.

Following the July 1 release of a U.S. Navy report summarizing investigations into the mechanical (and subsequently budgetary) failures of the USS San Antonio amphibious transport dock ship – failures determined to be stemming in large part from the craft’s engine oil lubrication system – Polmar called for drastic action.

“In view of the massive and continuing problems with that ship, the Navy would do well to recall to active duty the people who accepted the ship and court-martial and execute them in an attempt to encourage others to safeguard taxpayers’ money and possibly the lives of American sailors,” he said.

“The ship was supposed to cost about $800 million, and now you’re saying she’s a billion over cost and you’re still fixing her,” he continued. “That, my friend, is criminal, because those are American dollars and American lives put potentially at risk.”

Polmar’s execution suggestion, while rhetorical, shows the growing exasperation we all should have toward unreliable systems and improper lubricant management.

If you’re not fully aware of the failings of the USS San Antonio (LPD 17), here is a synopsis.

Built by Northrop Grumman Ship Systems in New Orleans, the 684-foot, 25,000-ton vessel was launched on July 12, 2003, and christened one week later. It had been scheduled to be commissioned on July 17, 2002, but was delayed by poor performance at the Avondale shipyard, which resulted in it being towed from New Orleans to the Northrop Grumman shipyard at Pascagoula, Miss., in December 2004 for completion. The ship was unable to move under its own power at that time, despite having been christened more than a year earlier. The ship arrived in its home port of Norfolk, Va., on December 18, 2005, and was finally commissioned on January 14, 2006. The ship failed an inspection in 2007, but eventually was assigned to the Persian Gulf. On its maiden voyage, in October 2008, the San Antonio made an emergency stop in Bahrain, where a 40-member team spent more than three weeks fixing a critical failure in the engine oil lubrication system.

In June 2009, repairs were made that included replacing approximately 80 percent of the external lube oil service piping. Later that year, experts found excessive wear to engine bearings, which they attributed to lube oil contamination that occurred while the ship was built. When metal shavings were found in the engines last November, the Navy began its formal probe.

Investigators detailed a number of issues that they blamed on the shipbuilder, the team that accepted the vessel, and the San Antonio crew manning and maintaining it.

“Unacceptable conditions (produced the ship’s significant engineering problems),” stated the report. “Inadequate government oversight during the construction process failed to prevent or identify as a problem the lack of cleanliness and quality assurance that resulted in contamination of closed systems. ... Material challenges with this ship and other ships of this class continue to negatively impact fleet operations. Failures in the acquisition process, maintenance, training and execution of shipboard programs all share in the responsibility for these engineering casualties.”

One particularly biting section of the report determined that the ship’s crew was slow to discover lube oil contamination.

“Command leadership failed to effectively execute a basic engineering program, specifically the lube oil quality management program, which was determined to be ineffective,” it stated.

News articles pin the additional cost to repair damage caused by the lube oil system contamination at more than $7.5 million.

“The operational impact is such that repairs may preclude San Antonio executing her next scheduled deployment,” the report stated.

When lubrication-related maladies lead to mechanical failures that drain coffers and impact the mission, everybody goes down with the ship. As Polmar intimated, heads will (and should) roll.

Don’t wait for a formal and painful investigation to execute lubrication excellence.

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