U.S. Navy Submarines Are Losing Their Stealth Coatings. Who’s to Blame?

David Axe

A former employee of Huntington Ingalls Industries, the Virginia-based shipbuilder that helps to construct all of the U.S. Navy’s submarines, has sued the company in federal court, claiming that the firm lied about problems with the external coating on Virginia-class attack subs.

Ari Lawrence, a former HII engineer, claimed he was fired for raising his concerns about the “anechoic” hull coating, which adheres to a submarine’s metal hull and helps to absorb sound waves, thus minimizing the vessel’s sonar signature.

Virginia-class subs since at least 2006 have suffered problems with their coatings. Official photos have depicted submarines entering and leaving port with noticeable gaps in their coatings, implying that chunks of the sound-absorbing material had peeled off.

Lawrence claimed HII falsified testing, inspection results and certifications related to the coatings.

The company will vigorously fight the charges, Jennifer Boykin, president of HII’s Newport News Shipbuilding division, told the Hampton Roads Daily Press newspaper. She told Daily Press that the U.S. Justice Department looked at Lawrence’s claims and declined to join the case.

Naval consultant Craig Hooper weighed in with comments to Daily Press. “It’s one of these things where it seems deceptively simple,” Hooper said of the coatings. “But it has a lot of variables.”

Losing sound-absorbing materials is a common problem for operators of deep-diving submarines, Forbes reported. “Submarines are made out of immensely strong steel, but when they go deep the water pressure makes their hulls flex and change shape.”

This places the adhesive behind the coating under immense strains. Add to this the long patrols, unforgiving salt water, rust and temperature changes involved and you have one of the most challenging operating environments on earth. So when you next see a submarine with tiles missing and rust stains, it may tell you more about the way it is being used than the maintenance standards of its owners.

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