ARLINGTON, Va. — The U.S. Navy’s program office for amphibious connectors is confident it can get its Ship to Shore Connector production line up to the desired four-a-year delivery rate in 2022 — despite past technical problems that led to production line slowdowns.
Capt. Scot Searles, the amphibious assault and connectors program manager, said last week the Navy and contractor Textron resolved a previous challenge with micro cracks in the SSC composite blades through both changes to the blades and the software that controls them.
According to a fiscal 2019 Selected Acquisition Report, builders trials on SSC Craft 100 began in June 2019, and technical concerns with the blades quickly arose. Trials in the “loaded” configuration, with 74 tons of cargo on the craft, led to “extensive propeller blade cracking.” The subsequent acceptance trials were conducted that year without any cargo on the craft while the Navy-industry team sought a solution.
Searles said during a Jan. 12 briefing at the annual Surface Navy Association conference the program office and Textron conducted extensive studies in 2020 to understand the nature of the micro cracking in the blades and why it occurred. They developed two solutions, one to reinforce the existing blade design and another to modify the propeller control software.
Both fixes have been backfit onto the four craft that have been delivered and have been inserted into the production line, he said. “We believe we’ve retired this issue with these two fixes.”
Still, work is ongoing to look for alternate blade designs that would be cheaper over the life of the craft, he said. The current fix involves at least four changes across the propeller fan.
As the Navy and Textron worked through this issue, Textron delivered just two craft to the Navy in 2020 and two in 2021. Searles said the program should be at a four-a-year delivery rate and would likely hit that pace this year, with the blade issues now in the past.
“We’ve got a nice full production line now, so the pump is fully primed and now there’s no longer anything backing it up at the exit,” he told Defense News at the briefing. “I think we’ll get to four this year — if not, it will be three with one that just barely misses being in this year.”
“I would expect to see that going forward at a very steady rate,” Searles added.
Amid these challenges, the overall cost of the program rose enough to trigger a Nunn-McCurdy breach in 2021, though Naval Sea Systems Command told Defense News at the time the program cost increase was a result of the first-in-class craft’s problems and the program had since stabilized.
To date, the four delivered craft have all gone to the Naval Surface Warfare Center Panama City Division in Florida for test and evaluation work. They’ve contributed to testing involving maintenance and sustainment, beach landings, vehicle interface testing with the trucks they’d haul from ship to shore, a controlled damage test to see how they hold up to a nearby mine explosion and more.
They’ve yet to do a live well deck test, though. Searles said the first well deck operation is planned for February with amphibious dock landing ship Carter Hall.
With major test events accomplished, Searles said the focus is on fielding the next craft off the assembly line to operational units. Assault Craft Unit 4 in Little Creek, Va., will get the craft first to prepare for initial operational capability in 2023 and the unit’s first deployment.
Later craft will go to ACU 5 at Camp Pendleton, Calif., and Naval Beach Unit 7 in Yokosuka, Japan.
Searles told Defense News the craft have only been operated by civilians and by ACU 4 sailors who came to Panama City for test events — but never by a fleet unit for training and deployment preparation.
Noting the fleet operators would view the SSC craft from a different perspective as the civilian testers, Searles said that over the next year or so “the big challenge we’re going to see is, how quickly can we close that feedback loop — as we test the craft and we find out things about reliability, maintainability, sustainability — we’ve got to very quickly pivot and get those things back into the production line.”
“Otherwise, at the rate of four per year, you will have a whole bunch already out there before you’ve incorporated a single fix,” he continued. “How do we get ramped up to a good delivery rate, maintain that, but not sacrifice incorporating feedback?”
The Navy has put the first 24 craft on contract with Textron through two contracts so far. A request for proposals for a third contract will go out this year, Searles said, noting the Navy is still refining its acquisition strategy for future craft. The service plans to buy 72 to replace the aging LCACs in the fleet.
Megan Eckstein is the naval warfare reporter at Defense News. She has covered military news since 2009, with a focus on U.S. Navy and Marine Corps operations, acquisition programs and budgets. She has reported from four geographic fleets and is happiest when she’s filing stories from a ship. Megan is a University of Maryland alumna.