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Instant Analysis: USS Milwaukee's Embarrassing Breakdown

By Rich Smith - Dec 17, 2015 at 6:13PM

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Yes, it's an embarrassment, but, no, it won't kill the LCS.

What happened? 
On Dec. 11, the Navy's newest warship, the USS Milwaukee, suffered an engine outage during her maiden oceangoing voyage. According to news reports, the Littoral Combat Ship was commissioned on Nov. 21 and departed inland waters from Halifax, Canada, en route to Mayport, Florida -- thence to her ultimate duty station in San Diego, at which point the ship would begin "shakedown" work to identify bugs in her system.

She never made it even to the halfway point, however. Instead, Milwaukee suffered an engineering "casualty" off the Atlantic coast, and had to be towed to port in Virginia.

Initial reports are that metal filings were discovered in the vessel's oil filter, which caused a loss of oil pressure and forced the engine to shut down.

Does it matter? 
Critics of the LCS class of ships are making political hay of the incident, with Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, for example, demanding "a thorough investigation into the root causes of this failure." That sounds serious, and the companies that build the LCS for the Navy -- General Dynamics (GD 2.64%), its partner Austal (AUTLY), and Lockheed Martin (LMT 1.26%)-- cannot afford to get on Sen. McCain's bad side. But the problem may not be as bad as it sounds.

After all, working out bugs in the system is a natural part of warship delivery. Other LCSes have had other problems in their post-delivery shakedown exercises, too.

Lockheed Martin's Freedom-class warships (the same class as Milwaukee) are built with steel hulls, for example. But General Dynamics' and Austal's Independence-class LCS had a problem with "galvanic corrosion" of its aluminum hull. That issue first surfaced five years ago, but was dealt with, and the LCSes are still getting built.

Metal filings in the lube oil? That's a new but not a "classwide issue," according to the Navy. It's probably just an isolated hiccup -- possibly the result of a simple misalignment of something in the engine. A few bangs with a wrench and Milwaukee'll be good as new.

Like the corrosion issue, it'll get identified, fixed, and the LCS program will move ahead. After all, that's what shakedown cruises are for.

Rich Smith does not own shares of, nor is he short, any company named above. You can find him on Motley Fool CAPS, publicly pontificating under the handle TMFDitty, where he's currently ranked No. 300 out of more than 75,000 rated members.

The Motley Fool has no position in any of the stocks mentioned either. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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