Editor's Note: This is the third and final installment of The Rust Dialogues, a series discussing the material condition of today's fleet. The Drift is honored to welcome esteemed Naval Warfare correspondent Chris Cavas to close it out, and he provided photographs. The result: The first ever full-color edition of The Drift. We're back to our regularly scheduled programming next Tuesday.
A Matter of Pride and Competence
By Chris Cavas
I got my first paying job while still in high school, working for the Army and Air Force Exchange Service pumping gas at a service station on Andrews Air Force Base. About half the gas jockeys were civilians like me, while the rest were airmen working for extra money or killing time before their next assignment. I was quickly taught one of the mantras of service life: “If it walks, salute it. If it moves, police it. If it doesn’t, paint it.” If we had nothing better to do, we were told to grab a paint can and brush and touch up every non-moving part of that service station. The place always had that just-painted smell. The manager was determined it would look good to anyone.
Some years later during the post-Cold War draw-down I was doing historical work for what was then the Navy Historical Center and visiting ships that were to be decommissioned. In February 1994 we were in Norfolk on a cold, snowy day and went aboard the nuclear cruiser USS Virginia, then two days into the deactivation process. The crew was still living aboard and doing most of the work. The ship looked great – as we stepped inside we had to ease past a sailor doing touch-up paint work on the bulkhead around the hatch. All looked professional and ship-shape. Yet I gasped when we went through another hatch into the Combat Information Center – half the consoles already had been ripped out and were being trucked ashore.
Caption: The nuclear cruiser USS Virginia (CGN 38) in February 1994. The ship was two days into the deactivation process, but many crew areas remained well-taken care of. (Photo by Chris Cavas)
Meeting with the commanding officer I asked him what the idea was keeping sailors painting the ship while others were ripping it up. “This is still their home,” he replied. “They need to have pride in the ship. It’ll look good until it doesn’t.”
He had a point. I remember another ship which I won’t name that looked awful. Much equipment was dysfunctional and the crew was downright sullen. What’s the difference, shrugged the supply officer. The ship would be decommissioned anyway.
Around the same time at NHC I was organizing declassified photographs and reports of Soviet ships taken throughout the Cold War period. Many photos were accompanied by reports on the encounter – place, time, general and specific observations of whatever had been photographed. Many of the Soviet warships looked neglected, rusty and worn, and quite a few of the reports commented that the ships’ appearance probably reflected on the likely poor seamanship and warfighting competence of the Soviets. Such remarks appeared in report after report.
Caption: The missile cruiser Marshal Voroshilov underway in mid-Pacific in April 1985, showing the rough appearance typical of many Soviet Navy ships of the period. (U.S. Navy)
Sailors everywhere take pride in their ship’s appearance and keeping up the paintwork ensures good ships look good. Regular painting is also one of the best methods to prevent corrosion and rust, the age-old enemy of metal ships. “Rust never sleeps” has been a watchword for seagoing people since the mid-19th century – and remains just as true today.
So what has happened to the U.S. Navy? A service that once prided itself on looking sharp and being sharp has fallen by the wayside. For some years now normal exterior wear and tear on ships is left untouched or the haze gray is blighted by patchwork touchup jobs that sometimes render half a dozen shades of gray haphazardly close together. The dreaded “pinking” of paints introduced in the 1990s is being overcome, but ships don’t look any better unless they’re right out of the yard. Get too close to many US Navy ships and rust streaks abound.
And don’t think no one notices. Sailors, visitors and observers the world over have noted the sad appearance of Uncle Sam’s fleet. Many wonder aloud whether the obviously rough appearance of US ships – often made the worse when operating alongside spiffy-looking foreign warships – indicates a lack of professional ability. The fatal, unprovoked destroyer collisions of 2017 certainly didn’t dissuade that impression.
It’s not that the Navy hasn’t addressed the problem. As I reported in Defense News in January 2012, a new polysiloxane Type 5 paint, Ameron PSX-700, was being introduced to eliminate the pinking problems of 1990s-era paints. The new paint, “an extremely hard, wear-resistant coating” according to a Naval Sea Systems Command expert, would also cut down on the need for touch up and repainting. It was formulated to be cleaned, not repainted, he said.
But if today’s waterfront is any indication, it isn’t working out that way. Ship after ship is streaked with rust or blighted by patchwork paint jobs. It’s kind of incredible if you start to focus on it.
Navy leaders habitually brush off concerns about the outside appearance of ships. It’s what’s inside that counts, they say. We worry more about their ability to do their job than whether they paint the ships.
Another frequent response is “they’re rode hard and put up wet,” meaning they’re busy at sea and don’t have time for such mundane tasks. They’ve been deployed too long, or the operational tempo is simply too high.
Uh-huh. Quite a few ships look terrible from the moment they cast off lines and get underway for a deployment – certainly no one is making sure they look their best as they begin a long cruise. They start off looking like crap and it goes downhill from there, because crews don’t spend quality time in foreign ports cleaning ship. One sorry-looking ship I saw in March hadn’t deployed or exercised much at all – she was six months out of the shipyard and had just come back from representing the Navy at Mobile, Alabama’s Mardi Gras. I’m sure she made a fine impression.
To be sure, there are ships that look pretty good. But for every one that does, there is a sorry sister nearby that doesn’t.
I turned to the venerable Bluejacket’s Manual to see if perhaps the Navy had forgotten the virtues of a good paint job. Thankfully, the good old BJM hadn’t.
“Paint is vital because it seals the pores of wood and steel, arrests decay, and helps prevent rust,” the Centennial Edition reads. “It also promotes cleanliness and sanitation because of its antiseptic properties and because it provides a smooth, washable surface. Paint is also used to reflect, absorb or redistribute light. And, properly applied, it can improve the appearance of things markedly.”
The manual cautions, however, that “proper painting is a skill that must be learned.”
If direct observation is any guide, that skill is in serious jeopardy in the U.S. Navy. The last commanding officer of USS Virginia could probably teach a thing or two to today’s fleet.
Cruiser USS Leyte Gulf (CG 55) at Norfolk in March 2019, two weeks before deploying. (Photo by Chris Cavas)
Caption: Destroyer USS Bainbridge (DDG 96) at Norfolk on 12 March 2019, two weeks before deploying. (Photo by Chris Cavas)
Caption: Destroyer USS Gonzalez (DDG 66) at Norfolk on 12 March 2019, one day before a scheduled departure for an independent deployment. (Photo by Chris Cavas)