- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Cost overruns eclipse

new Navy ship’s firsts

The USS San Antonio is a ship of distinctions — it’s the Navy’s first ship designed entirely on computer, the first with “gender-neutral” quarters, first of its class and first to bear the name of the Texas city.

But there’s also a dubious distinction for the San Antonio: Its price, $1.76 billion, is almost three times its projected cost a decade ago.

The 684-foot-long troop transport built by Northrop Grumman Ship Systems will be commissioned Jan. 14 at Ingleside Naval Station near Corpus Christi, Texas.

The ship’s saga is in part the story of a 21st-century Navy whose goal of a 313-ship fleet is jeopardized by rising costs.

Some of the San Antonio’s problems stem from the nature of being a first-of-class ship. But even the Navy has been unhappy with the ship’s progress.

Originally pegged to cost about $644 million by the Government Accountability Office, the ship is more expensive than the Navy’s Arleigh Burke-class guided missile Aegis destroyer, which averages $1.3 billion to $1.4 billion.

“It’s a troop transport with a lot more features, but it’s still basically a troop and equipment transport,” said naval analyst Norman Polmar. “For us to pay that much when we can buy an Aegis guided-missile destroyer for [about] $1 billion, it’s ludicrous.”

Budgets for the San Antonio and the second ship in its class, the USS New Orleans, have grown by $1 billion, according to a February 2005 GAO study.

Still, the San Antonio is the cheapest of five new ship systems, the priciest being the CVN-21 aircraft carrier. The first ship in that class is to cost $10.5 billion, according to a recent Congressional Budget Office report.

The GAO’s February report said increases in labor and material costs accounted for two-thirds of the ship’s cost growth.

Of the eight ships in President Bush’s 2005 budget, the GAO found that the San Antonio had the worst cost overrun, $804 million. That’s twice as much as the USS Virginia, a $3.7 billion nuclear attack submarine.

Designed to ferry Marines into battle, it’s the only amphibious troop vessel capable of withstanding the air pressure generated by a nuclear blast, and it can protect its sailors from radioactive fallout and biological weapons.

But the high-tech defense network didn’t dent a Navy Board of Inspection and Survey report that found deficiencies throughout the vessel.

The inspectors wrote up 107 “starred cards” given for equipment that needed to be repaired. They rated craftsmanship standards as “poor.” Workers left a “snarled, over-packed, poorly assembled and virtually uncorrectable electrical/electronic cable plant.”

The inspectors said watertight integrity was compromised throughout the ship by multiple cable lines.

This week, the San Antonio’s program manager and the ship’s captain said the cable plant and watertight-integrity issues had been resolved.

• Distributed by New York Times News Service

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