A Rusty Problem

The ocean is a nasty, caustic, unfriendly environment. Between the sea spray, wind and waves, not to mention the wildlife, pretty much everything wants to or can kill you. For a maritime vessel though, the largest challenge is managing rust. The science is simple. Ocean vessels sit in salt water, the iron in the vessels loses electrons because of the presence of oxygen, and the iron turns in rust. A moving ocean that readily reabsorbs oxygen makes this a continual process on a ship.

For the US Navy, this means the oceans are literally eating our ships. The USS FORT MCHENRY caused a bit of a stir when she pulled into Germany looking…well, like a rust bucket. Fighting rust, at least right now, is difficult and labor intensive. The Navy spends 7.5 billion dollars a year to fight rust. Thats half an aircraft carrier, and from looking at the FORT MCHENRY’s pictures, it’s probably not enough.

Rust doesn’t discriminate by country either. China’s growing Navy looks beautiful on the outside, but that’s because most of the ships are new. At least a few Chinese officials have admitted that rust is a problem with ships, aircraft and ground systems in the South China Sea. Like the US, fighting rust is a big industry, and the Chinese are pursuing graphene coatings for their systems.

We continue to have debates about the size of the Navy. Whether its 355, 300 or 400 ships, we as a nation are laser-locked on numbers. That focus ignores a big, ugly unfortunate truth: we can’t keep ignoring maintenance. The biggest Navy in the world is worthless if it rusts away at the pier. Brazil, for example, once had battleships and aircraft carriers, but a lack of focus on maintenance resulted in a Navy powerful only on paper.

It’s not sexy to budget for corrosion protection, but its vital if we want to keep the Navy we pay for.

This post represents the views of the author and not those of the Department of Defense, Department of the Navy, or any other government agency.