The lack of adequate oversight by Navy personnel on construction work for the service’s newest amphibious warship played a key role in the vessel’s numerous development delays, senior service officials told Congress this week.

The latest variants of the San Antonio-class ships (LPD-17) have been been plagued by technical issues during development, since shipbuilder Northrop Grumman [NOC] delivered it to the Navy in 2005. Northrop Grumman recently divested its shipbuilding interests into a new firm named Huntington Ingalls Industries [HII].

While the root of the program’s difficulties can be tied to a number of things, the crux of the ship’s recent failures was the erosion of the "culture of quality" that had been so common within the service’s shipyards, Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Seapower Subcommitte, said yesterday.

That erosion was due in no small part to the lack of service personnel at the shipyards to enforce ship construction and development standards, he added.

While acknowledging that some of that oversight responsibility did fall to the sea service’s shipbuilding partners, Naval Sea Systems Command chief Vice Adm. Kevin McCoy admitted that oversight was a "fundamental [Navy] responsibility…that did not happen here."

That gap led to the "nagging reliability issues" — from unsatisfactory ship welds to consistent grit in the ship’s engine oil–that eventually became the "Achilles’ heel" for the LPD-17 class, McCoy added during his testimony before the subpanel yesterday.

"Over time, we have atrophied" in terms of shipbuilding quality and service oversight of that work," Capt. William Galinis, supervisor of shipbuilding for the Navy’s Gulf Coast shipyards, added during the hearing.  

Navy officials have beefed up both the number of service personnel at the shipyards and the oversight authority they have to ensure that the San Antonio-class effort and other ongoing development programs stay on course, Galinis added.

That effort, coupled with other mechanisms designed to address issues on the industry side, have enabled the to Navy catch many of the mistakes that plagued the LPD-17, service acquisition chief Sean Stackley testified at the same hearing.

Navy officials also canceled the service’s deal with Virginia-based Earl Industries, which had been contracted to do maintenance work on the LPD-17, citing performance failures in the company’s support of the ship.

On the LPD-17 specifically, Stackley said service officials have also corrected a number of the technical issues on the ship, including grit deposits in the propulsion system and upgrading the ship-wide communications systems.

Navy program officials are also addressing deficiencies in the ship’s combat systems, Stackley added.

The work was prompted by a late 2010 report by the Pentagon’s testing and evaluation directorate on the San Antonio-class vessel. Among other issues, the report stated the LPD-17 weapon systems were inefficient against certain threats and questioned the ship’s overall reliablity and performance.

The work on the boat’s weapons, propulsion and communications systems would address all those issues raised in the report, Stackley and McCoy told lawmakers, with the NAVSEA chief noting those issues were "behind us now."