ALEXANDRIA – Good Evening, Drifters
Like all sailors, I’ve chipped my fair share of paint. There’s nothing unique about my experience, and that’s kind of the point I’m driving at tonight.
If you ask the average American what sailors do while their ship is in port, I suspect a lot of them would know at a minimum that busting rust on a metal ship that spends all its time floating in salt water is among their foremost duties. And they’re right about that: Every time the ship was in port there was some rust to needle-gun, sand, prime and paint. It sucks, it’s hard work and everyone does it.
Over a few years of topside preservation, the blood, sweat and tears you pour into the ship is what cements that strange bond sailors form with those big hunks of steel and aluminum. I feel a pang every time I see my old ship’s decommissioning date (2025), and I suspect a lot of it goes back to the work my shipmates and I put in to making her look good.
Navy Twitter, which is as reactionary as all Twitter, got in a little debate yesterday about recent pictures of the fleet looking a bit worse for wear. What does it mean for a ship when it looks like a rust bucket? Does it matter? Are there bigger problems that sailors need to worry about than running rust? I asked for some feedback and I got a lot of good responses and I learned a bit about corrosion in the process. So, I figured let’s delve into the issue a little bit tonight and see why people get so spun up about rust.
(This is admittedly niche, but you signed up for a Navy newsletter.)
What’s up with the rust?
I want to point out that this is USS Normandy in June 2005 in the Persian Gulf, four months into a deployment and well over a year after we left the yards. Rust? We ain't got no stinkin' rust. pic.twitter.com/U1FmxuPW9k — David B Larter (@DavidLarter) April 17, 2019
Look at that beauty. That’s a 16-year-old USS Normandy in the Persian Gulf, four months into our 2005 deployment. Here’s a link to the high-res version where if you zoom in you can see me and the other line handlers just aft of the port break waiting to come alongside the oiler. But you’ll also see that there’s not much rust on her. That’s because we chipped and painted her every time we pulled into a port.
If you look at pictures of today’s ships on deployment, they don’t often look like this anymore. The great rust debate was kicked off by my friend and former Navy Times compadre Phil Ewing, who posted a picture of a cruiser and DDG alongside a French ship and a Danish ship, which looked decidedly better preserved than their American counterparts. (See high-res here).
Phil’s point was that the appearance of the ships reflects decisions of higher-ups from years past and continuing manning and maintenance challenges. Some chimed in, saying that the US ships are older and their op-tempo is higher. Others weighed in saying that painting would be more of a priority if they had enough sailors to do the work, but over the years manning has been “optimized” and the billets just aren’t there. Some intimated that there are bigger problems in the surface fleet to worry about beyond just surface rust.
But to many others, the sight of running rust not only raises questions about whether there are larger issues with the ship and its crew. A sloppy appearance might also undermine the mission of the surface fleet in peace time: to show the flag and represent the United States overseas.
I want to take time to dig into a few of these issues here and, I’ll warn you, I’m not drawing any conclusions. But I want to dig into three things
- Why do people get triggered when they see rusty ships?
- Is rust on the outside really a big deal?
- What’s contributing to the rust issue?
Trigger Warning: Rust
So, to address the first part of this, I’ll speak from personal experience: I don’t like seeing it because when I was coming up in the early aughts I was raised to believe that a ship with a lot of running rust was a ship that wasn’t taking pride in itself.
And I’m not alone. My predecessor and mentor Chris Cavas often tweets about this topic. Famous amphibian Navy commentator CDR Salamander has commented frequently on this topic as well.
Salamander’s argument goes thusly: Rust on the outside is a primary indicator of issues on the inside. My good friend, former cruiser skipper and former movie Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Capt. Rick Hoffman (Battleship, 2012) put it this way:
“It’s a reflection of a general malaise and general departure from love for the ship, care for the ship, respect for the ship.”
When I posed this question on my Twitter, one user responded thusly:
“If one lets the little but fundamental things go to the wayside routinely, it's just a matter of time before compromises are also made on the important things. It's a mindset & culture. Been that way in professional militaries forever.”
To illustrate my point, I posted a recent picture of the cruiser Mobile Bay. That brought out a recent Operations Officer from MOB, who defended the ship by arguing that they must make decisions about where to assign their resources.
“She’s on cruise, which is a HUGE factor, as it is on any ship. Is there running rust on lots of ships? Yes. Are there also degradations inside? Absolutely. Are those factors indicative of combat ineffectiveness? Not necessarily. They’re indicative of triage.”
Are we overreacting?
So, here’s a good question: Is rust on the skin of a ship really that big of a deal in the first place?
To some observers, cosmetics are a nice-to-have. One observer on Twitter, with the handle “ImDaBosn,” said it’s about competing priorities:
“Look, curb appeal is nice. Everyone likes it. Give us 2 weeks pierside, a couple of JLG's, a paint float, a port that isn't too picky about environmental regs, & you've got curb appeal. Underway, its ops, drills, mandatory training …Competing Priorities.”
But does that mean rust is no big deal? That’s complicated.
Here’s how one Twitter user described the issue, and this tracks with a conversation with someone from the Navy engineering community that I will recount in just a minute.
“That rust today may mean that a larger or more expensive yard period is required to replace corroded elements of the hull (have first-hand experience). Unless the Navy wants to deal with an ever-expanding maintenance bill.”
In 2013, then-Surface Forces commander Vice Adm. Thomas Copeman told an audience at Surface Navy Association that corrosion was killing his budget and bemoaned billions spent on the corrosion bill. (The tab Navy-wide was 3.1 billion in 2012 and by 2014 there were reports it was as high as $7 billion.) According to a 2011 Naval Sea Systems Command brief, corrosion management eats about 25% of a ship’s budget. The GAO found in 2016 the total DoD tab for corrosion was about $20 billion.
So, we know that corrosion is a big deal, but is there a difference between corrosion such as fuel tanks and the steel frames inside the ship and the rust we see in the pictures?
Well it could be yes and could be no. I had a nice conversation with a naval engineering type and asked just that question, and as befits engineers, the answer was qualified and complicated. But it boils down to this: If there is rust on the outside, just as the Twitter user intimated, it does raise questions about the tanks, the I-beams, and other such critical areas.
There is also the issue of how much thickness is left in the hull. A rusted-out spot needs to be sanded and primed and painted. And over the life of the hull that can thin out the steel plates, which may need to be reinforced or replaced in overhaul ($$$). On DDGs, they designed them to have a lot of hull thickness to work with. But on a cruiser that it getting to the end of its service life, that might be a different story.
But a little running rust, from a strictly structural perspective, isn’t a big deal. If the deck drains or overboard discharges have some rust streaks below them, it’s an indicator of some rust in the pipes, not anything direr than that.
So, it may be a big deal or it may not be. Here’s how my friend put it:
“It’s a little like a cough: It might just be a cold, or it could be lung cancer.”
But let’s remember where we started: The problem with rust isn’t just physical, it’s about perceptions as well. Or as another observer on Twitter put it:
“How do you make a Port of Call, or Project strength or even Competence with a ship that looks like that!! It’s an embarrassment.”
This isn’t something that should be discounted.
What’s driving this?
Well this one is pretty intuitive. Plenty of people on Twitter pointed out that manning ain’t what it used to be. If we go back a bit an assume that some of the same issues the surface force is facing today mirror those from about a decade ago at the peak of minimum manning, between 2003 and 2009 there was a 400 percent increase in the number of corrosion control jobs for DDGs, according to a Secretary of the Navy report from the time. And in that time the ships that are causing the most trouble have only gotten older.
The fleet is also undermanned by about 6,000 sailors, so likely there is more than the normal level of “triage,” as Mobile Bay’s former Ops boss put it.
I also have questions about the efficacy of a new paint introduced about seven years ago. In 2012, the Navy introduced polysiloxane paint, which replaced a silicone alkyd paint, and was supposed to last up to seven years or more, saving 10s of thousands of man hour per year. But with the amount of rust we are seeing in the pictures, is the polysiloxane performing up to spec or is the rust indeed indicative of more serious issues on the ships?
And then there is the question of “triage.” Ships fleetwide are clearly deciding that their manpower is better spent on other things. I have a hard time swallowing that today’s COs somehow have less pride in their ships than COs in my day. So, this then becomes a question for leadership: Where are they being told to place their priorities?
I said I’m not drawing any! But I will sum up:
- It’s possible some observers put too much emphasis on how the ship looks, but that emphasis is founded on real strategic considerations: How well does this ship represent the U.S. overseas to our allies and adversaries alike?
- Surface rust could be indicative of deeper issues on the ship, but it might not be
- Manning is short fleetwide, and manning shortages often eat into the nice-to-haves.
One thing is for certain: These ships are going to be around for a long time. The Navy wants 45 years-plus out of the DDGs. Those hulls need crews manned and equipped to take care of them if they are going to reach that service life.