The Pentagon calls China its primary “pacing challenge” and Russia a major threat to the world order, but the Navy may be facing an even more formidable and insidious challenge to its fleets from within: rust.
The U.S. Navy is fighting a never-ending battle against the unsightly reddish-brown streaks and patches that are caused by the destructive combination of steel hulls, oxygen and seawater. And despite the millions of man hours and billions of dollars spent combating corrosion in the fleet, some fear rust is winning the war.
The Navy’s top admiral has acknowledged how crucial the anti-rust campaign is for the future of the service, militarily and aesthetically.
“Appearance is important. You’ve got to look sharp,” Admiral Mike Gilday, the chief of naval operations, said in April 2022 at the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. “We’re the world’s premier navy [and] we’ve got to look like it.”
While the sight of a rust-stained destroyer or supply ship steaming past might be an eyesore, the problem is far more than merely cosmetic. If left untreated, rust can cause serious structural damage to a ship.
“It’s a necessary function. If you don’t take care of your hull, you shouldn’t be shocked when it falls apart,” said retired Navy Captain Carl Schuster, who now teaches history and international relations at Hawaii Pacific University. “Rust has less than a third of the strength of regular steel.”
SEE ALSO: Russia hawks blame Ukraine for car bomb that killed Putin adviser’s daughter
Critics blame the Navy’s rust problem on everything from fewer ships expected to operate at a much faster mission tempo and environmental concerns about abatement practices to the COVID-19 pandemic preventing vessels from pulling into ports for maintenance.
“This has changed the way we have approached the maintenance of our ships,” said retired Navy Capt. Jerry Hendrix, a senior fellow with the Sagamore Institute think tank. “These ships are accelerating in their degradation.”
The Navy is pushing back on charges that it is neglecting shipboard preservation. Commander Arlo Abrahamson, a spokesman for the commander of naval surface forces in the Pacific, said the command’s crews devote “considerable time and energy” to balancing operational requirements and maintenance needs of their warships.
“We take a methodical approach to preserving our ships, synchronizing efforts with other maintenance requirements to ensure ships are ready and fully mission-capable,” Commander Abrahamson said in a statement to The Washington Times. “We address these preservation challenges quickly at sea, after ships return to port, and during maintenance phases.”
Commander Abrahamson pointed to the example of the USS Benfold, a guided-missile destroyer whose captain created a full-time maintenance group specifically focused on preventing external shipboard corrosion, even while at sea.
“The team is hands-on busting rust, priming, or painting every day except Sunday,” said Petty Officer 1st Class Alexander Polk, who is part of the Benfold Restoration Team (BRT). “Every week we conduct a job review board and discuss upcoming jobs.”
But looking good doesn’t come cheap. Recent estimates are hard to come by but a 2014 Pentagon study put the cost of keeping the rust off of Navy ship hulls at some $3 billion a year — or a quarter of all maintenance budget costs. Navy officials have described the war with rust as a “never-ending challenge.”
The U.S. Navy is unique among global military fleets in that it deploys around the world. Most navies tend to operate in their own waters and stay closer to shore, giving them more time and opportunities to return to their home port for maintenance. The Navy’s rust problems also affect how the service is perceived by other countries, Captain Hendrix said.
“It’s having an impact on our standing in the world. That’s something the Navy really needs to come to grips with,” he said. “Influence is greatly tied to perception. If the perception is that your ships look terrible, that’s the perception of the country: ‘Our fleet is old and it’s tired and that we as a nation are old and tired and appear run down.’”
Like its sister services, the Navy is contending with serious recruiting and retention problems in the fleet. Captain Schuster said he’s concerned it has resulted in a lack of internal discipline and a sense of complacency in the fleet.
“If you’re not willing to maintain the ship and preserve the hull and superstructure, what else are you ignoring in terms of maintenance?” he asked. “What else are they not taking care of?”
He said the Navy “lost its way” following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War.
“You never knew when the Russians were going to war. But now, for 30 years, we haven’t had an opponent at sea,” Captain Schuster said. “The Navy got away from the fundamentals because we didn’t have to worry about the fundamentals.”
Veteran naval journalist Chris Cavas was even blunter in a commentary for the military news website Task and Purpose, writing in 2021: “We have become the worst-looking Navy in the world — with no competition. When you look at a ship from a European navy or the Chinese navy, for example, they will make that ship pristine before it deploys.”
Navy Command Master Chief Andrew Thomasson, the senior enlisted sailor aboard the USS Benfold, said his sailors take great pride in the condition of their ship.
“When a ship looks pristine, new, and looking her best, our enemies hesitate to mess with us because when we’re looking our best, we obviously must be performing at our best,” he said. “And just the opposite when we look dirty and rusty. When a ship is looking her best, just look at it as saving lives.”
Captain Hendrix said the appointment of Carlos Del Toro as secretary of the navy is a good sign for the future of shipboard maintenance. Mr. Del Toro spent 22 years in the Navy and was the first commanding officer of the USS Bulkeley, a guided-missile destroyer.
“The reputation of that ship while he was in command was superb — both in performance and appearance,” he said. “He understands the importance of the material condition and appearance of ships.”