Metal debris in a main reduction gear. Trouble receiving messages. A deck gun down. Missiles likely to self-destruct after launch.
These were a few of the problems onboard the cruiser Mobile Bay in April that led to its failure by the Board of Inspection and Survey, at a time when fleet leaders are focusing on regaining maintenance footing along the waterfront. It marks the first INSURV failure this year but the third in five months, a sign of continuing stress for a busy fleet.
Inspection results have been classified since late 2008, but the new details emerged from an unclassified email from the head of INSURV to fleet leaders, which was provided to Navy Times.
"Bottom line: severe problems with engines, missiles, guns, links, comms and aviation," Rear Adm. Rob Wray, president of INSURV, wrote in the April 7 email addressed to the heads of Fleet Forces Command, Pacific Fleet and Naval Surface Forces. "The ship's material condition did not support underway operations, area air defense operations, or principal warfare commander command and control requirements."
In the email, Wray detailed Mobile Bay's discrepancies. Upon discovering metal debris in the port main reduction gear, the shaft had to be locked for most of the underway part of the inspection. All seven gas turbine engines and generators had multiple problems that precluded their operation. The SPY-1 radar was unable to operate at minimum power and the Aegis weapon system couldn't provide a "recommend fire" alert in simulation mode, preventing Standard Missile-2 launches. The forward deck gun was inoperable due to a faulty firing pin. Connectivity issues hampered data links, email, radio circuits, naval messages, instant messaging — even Tomahawk mission planning.
A spokesman for Fleet Forces Command, after reviewing the unclassified email, declined to comment, saying many of the specifics in the email were classified.
The failure is unusual because, one year earlier, Mobile Bay had completed a 10-month overhaul, billed by Naval Sea Systems Command as "the most comprehensive upgrade and modernization program in the history of the U.S. Navy," according to a Navy newsstand story. The second cruiser to complete the modernization, the ship had a combat systems upgrade, installing the latest updates to the Aegis weapon system.
"Poor Aegis weapon system performance," Wray wrote in the email. "Missile uplink failed the operational performance test in both deck houses; it's likely any SM-2 would self-destruct shortly after launch on loss of uplink."
Moreover, Mobile Bay was not overly burdened by a hectic deployment schedule, which has been a factor in past failures. The ship returned from its last deployment 2½ years ago.
"How can you be out there and be unable to operate your propulsion plant, unable to talk to anybody on the radio, and unable to come up with a recommend fire solution on your weapons system?" asked retired Capt. Earle Yerger, after seeing the email. Yerger, who retired in 2005 as head of Southeast Regional Maintenance Center after commanding the frigate Doyle and amphibious assault ship Bataan, is now an executive with North Florida Shipyards in Jacksonville, Fla.
"The ship is graded on its ability to self-assess its own condition. This report tells me they couldn't do that," Yerger said, because the crew should have already submitted casualty reports and reported all discrepancies to the inspection team before its visit.
Consider the debris in the port main reduction gear, Yerger said. Magnets and baskets in the lube oil strainers are designed to pick up metallic particles that may have gotten into the system, but they require frequent cleaning and inspection. Yerger said the email suggests that the crew had failed to properly inspect the lube oil strainer, which could be as simple as cleaning out the basket.
"That's a training issue with the ship over the long term," Yerger said. "OK, you're going through the motions, but do you realize what it is that you're looking at? Do you realize what you're doing?"
Naval Surface Forces spokesman Cmdr. Jason Salata declined to comment on the email but, in a previous interview, said, "the ship received an overall unsat largely due to deficiencies in the as-found condition," adding that most were quickly fixed.
In his email, Wray had a different take from Yerger.
"The results were disappointing because the crew had a well- prepared plan, were familiar with the checks, and executed the MI very proficiently," he wrote. "Outside the deficient areas, the results were uniformly good."