YOKOSUKA, JAPAN — When the John S. McCain collided with the Alnic MC near the Singapore Strait in August last year, it was the third 7th Fleet ship to be put out of action by mishaps within a span of eight months.
The year 2017 started with the grounding of the cruiser Antietam at an anchorage just outside of Fleet Activities Yokosuka, causing an oil spill and forcing the ship to spend the rest of the year in dry-dock overhaul. The destroyer Fitzgerald collided with the MV ACX Crystal in June, two months before McCain’s accident.
The accidents took a devastating toll on operational availability among 7th Fleet ships. The accidents reduced by a quarter the number of usable cruisers and destroyers in Yokosuka and left two of the seven Yokosuka ships the Navy considers BMD capable —Fitzgerald and McCain —out of the rotation.
Eight months later, 7th Fleet’s recovery is slowly coming into focus.
After spending most of the year in overhaul, the cruiser Antietam — sidelined after grounding within sight of Fleet Activities Yokosuka — is back in action and working up for a patrol in the spring. The ship in December got back underway for the first time since the grounding, and in March the ship took part in MultiSail 2018 in the Philippine Sea alongside the destroyers Curtis Wilbur, Benfold and Mustin, as well as the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force destroyer Fuyuzuki.
Unlike the cruiser Port Royal, which suffered long-term damage from its grounding in 2009 Antietam, has no serious lingering effects that limit its operations because of the grounding, according to Lt. Cmdr. Jeremy Watkins, Antietam’s executive officer.
“For Antietam, the [repair] process has proven effective and we’re able to perform our normal operations,” Watkins said.
The two destroyers are another story all together. Much more seriously damaged than Antietam, both destroyers will take many months to fix.
Fitzgerald was heavy-lifted to Huntington Ingalls in Pascagoula, Mississippi, and recently added $57 million to the tab on the repair. That brings the running total to nearly $398 million worth of contracts thus far for Fitzgerald.
The repairs on Fitzgerald are far more complicated than for McCain.
When the Crystal punched through the superstructure, it warped — an outcome that is about as bad as you can have for an AEGIS ship that requires relatively precise angles for its SPY-1 radar to work correctly. There were even questions about whether the ship was salvageable at all early on, but Congress and the Navy decided to go ahead with the repairs at Ingalls. The $398 million includes more than $15 million for a new SPY-1D array purchased from Lockheed Martin.
Work on the Fitzgerald should be done by the end of 2020, according to the most recent contract award, but pinning down an actual date is difficult because the yard is still wrapping its arms around the normal growth work that arises any time you open a ship up, let alone one that was partially flooded.
McCain is, in contrast, a relatively straight-forward repair. The Navy decided that the job was one that could be handled by the repair facility in Yokosuka rather than back in the states like Fitzgerald.
To fix McCain, yard workers in Yokosuka have cut away all the debris, twisted metal, pipes and wires from the hole punched through its hull by the Alnic MC. In its place, the workers have erected large stanchions and shoring around the area breach to support McCain and prevent buckling and further damage.
The cutaway section is then to be refabricated and welded back into place.
A couple factors have made the McCain repair challenging, according to engineers who spoke to Defense News. First, the supply system isn’t exactly set up for replacing whole sections of the ship so resolving parts issues has been a slog but are being worked through. The second is the simple limitation that spaces can only fit so many workers in them at a time — a calculation that engineers call “butts per square inch.”
Seventh Fleet commander Vice Adm. Phillip Sawyer told Defense News during a visit to Japan that the time in dry dock would be used not just for mending the collision damage but other lingering problems as well.
“So we’re not only fixing the damage that was done during the collision but we’re also taking advantage of her being in a dry dock and fixing other things — either periodic maintenance or corrective maintenance,” Sawyer said.
The original plan was to have McCain back in the fleet by the end of the fiscal year, but prospects for that have dimmed as growth work — repairs discovered in the process of fixing the obvious damage — has reared its ugly head, officials said. One who spoke on background said that during repairs and inspections, the yard discovered extensive cabling issues that needed to be fixed, driving delays in getting McCain back on patrol in 7th Fleet.
David B. Larter was the naval warfare reporter for Defense News.