An image of the U.S. Navy’s Virginia class submarine, the USS Mississippi, appeared on the cover of Honolulu’s Star Advertiser earlier this week, as the submarine returned to its home port at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.  Although the image itself is a pleasant one, depicting the massive nuclear submarine juxtaposed against the serene landscape of the Hawaiian Islands, a closer inspection betrays a serious problem facing America’s fleet of tactical submarines: the sound proofing material is peeling off of the hull of the ship.

Virginia class submarines are the most advanced in the world, boasting a nuclear power source, Tomahawk cruise missiles, and MK48 torpedoes.  These submarines are tasked with hunting down and targeting enemy submarines and surface vessels, as well as force projection onto land-based theaters through its supply of cruise missiles.  The submarines are stealthy killers with enough firepower to be considered formidable opponents for anything else the world has to offer… but a failure in the glue used to adhere the sound proofing coating that keeps these submarines difficult to detect may be putting our submarine force at risk.

The problem was first identified by the Navy in 2010, and they promptly announced that they had a solution they were developing that would keep the sound proof coating on the hulls of their submarines.  Two years later, the USS Mississippi was commissioned, and one would think that a solution would have already been well in hand by that time – but the photograph posted in the Star Advertiser clearly shows that the material has been coming off the Mississippi in large chunks.

While underwater, submarines face two sound-based challenges when keeping themselves hidden from enemy ships.  The first is the submarine’s internal sound levels, which can carry through the water and be detected by submarine detection equipment.  The second is sonar, which like radar, works by transmitting a signal through the water, which bounces back when it comes into contact with things like the hull of a submarine.  In order to address each of these challenges, the Navy began using anechoic coatings on all of its submarines designed to absorb sonar waves that come into contact with the ship, as well as to insulate the ship from allowing sounds produced by the submarine itself to be carried through the hull and into the water.

The problem, however, is the glue used to secure this coating on the hull.  Submarine hulls are put through a torture chamber of temperature and pressure variations throughout normal sea operations.  These temperature swings coupled with the continuous friction of water tugging at the outside of the hull eventually overpowers the grip of the glue used to secure the coating, contributing to chunks of the sound-proofing material falling, peeling, or being rubbed off the submarine as it goes about its business.

Gaps in the coating could leave these nuclear submarines far more susceptible to detection by enemy ships, limiting their combat capabilities and putting their crews at risk of attack.

In 2014, the Navy once again announced that they had a solution to this problem, and that it would see implementation on all submarines built after 2018.  They claimed that they would be retrofitting our current fleet of subs in 2016, but if the Mississippi is any indicator, those plans may have been sacrificed due to budget cuts.  The American Navy has already been suffering long delays in ship refits and maintenance as a result of the sequestration that has strangled funding for many military projects, and at least one submarine has already had its dive certification revoked as it awaits maintenance that has been so delayed it may be more apt to classify its needs as “repair” instead.

Now it would seem those same delays and difficulties have pushed plans to repair the sound proofing on the hulls of our submarines back further – which raises serious concerns about the stealth-capabilities of our fleet and how well they would actually fare in a peer-level conflict with an opponent like Russia or China.

Worse still, maybe the sound proofing is continuing to flake off of these vessels because a reasonable solution has yet to materialize – which could limit the capabilities of any new vessels we bring into service in the years to come.  In either event, America’s powerful navy continues to suffer setbacks as a result of limited resources and a failure to maintain the equipment we have – and in this case, it could make our entire seventy-five ship undersea fleet worthless in the types of warfare the U.S. is now focused on preparing for.


Image courtesy of the Honolulu Star Advertiser