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Exploring The USS Fort Lauderdale, A Ship Whose Design Has A Rough Past

Six years from now or so, there will be a day when we all might head down to the beach to show a little hometown pride. Likely, there will be crowds waving flags, marching bands and students in ROTC uniforms. Fireboats could spray water cannons in arches that turn into instant rainbows. And in the distance will be the USS Fort Lauderdale, seeming like it’s arrived from the future.

With a helipad in the back and pair of primer-gray towers jutting up in the center, it will no doubt look the part of a warship. But to those of us who don’t follow advances in naval ships, it will look more like a Lego creation from a kid who didn’t follow the directions. Because radar works by catching right angles, there will be almost none of them anywhere on the outside of the ship. It won’t be rounded, like a family sedan, but instead, every corner will come together at 35 degrees or 63 degrees or some other strange formation, creating shapes you can’t identify. All at once, it will be odd and handsome and as if it arrived from space.

When it turns into the inlet, and its wake washes up for the first time in the city that gave the ship its name, it will no doubt be a source of pride for many. Politicians and average Joes spent years lobbying the Navy to grant Fort Lauderdale the honor of a namesake vessel. There will be congratulatory speeches and probably tours for those who can call in a favor. Maybe a parade down Las Olas will be in order.

There will, however, be questions. The USS Fort Lauderdale will be built, by 2021, using a design that is enormously flawed. The Navy has spent a decade attempting to correct the problems, going a couple billion dollars over budget. In the end, top brass decided to scrap the entire program. But then Congress funded one more ship, thanks at least in part to a powerful lawmaker looking to bring jobs to his district. The USS Fort Lauderdale will join the Navy as an unwanted weapon and a symbol of government ineptitude.

Which leaves us with this big question: When the USS Fort Lauderdale finally sails into port, is our city getting a Lexus or a lemon?

Undoubtedly you’ve seen movies and newsreels of the D-Day landing in World War II, so you can picture those squared-off landing ships soldiers took ashore. Those workhorses didn’t sail from England—they were birthed from bigger transport ships. Until recently, the Navy was still using the basic transport ship design used in Normandy.

In 1996, the Navy planned a new fleet of ships unceremoniously called LPD, or landing platform/dock. It’s this futuristic-looking design that will be used to build the USS Fort Lauderdale.

The LPD is no small transport. At 684 feet, it’s more than 100 feet longer than the height of Fort Lauderdale’s tallest building. It’s larger than any ship in the British Navy and bigger than many cargo ships. Its back end is a giant hatch, and inside is a cavern for everything from landing craft to tanks. It can hold 700 marines. 

The first LPD-class ship, the USS San Antonio, was christened in July 2003. It was a floating symbol of the new Navy. And it was a calamity of misadventures.

Delayed for three years, it had an initial price tag of $644 million that soon rose to $1.8 billion. Nothing on the ship seemed to work. The rear hatch wouldn’t open, essentially making the San Antonio useless. Unable to complete minimal tests, the Navy towed her into port. 

Problems arose again on the San Antonio’s maiden voyage to Bahrain. Fuel pipes leaked from multiple places, shutting down the engines. The Navy dispatched a team of 40 workers to make costly repairs. 

The San Antonio-class amphibious transport dock USS New Orleans (left) is an LPD-class ship like the anticipated USS Fort Lauderdale.

At the height of the problems, Time magazine called the program “The Navy’s Floating Fiasco.” A report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) criticized the Navy for failing to make a case for the LPD ships, stating that “the programs pushed ahead without a stable design and without realistic cost estimates, resulting in higher costs, schedule delays and quality problems.”

It would get worse. After repairs in Bahrain, the San Antonio set sail for the horn of Africa, where it would join an armada of U.S. ships deterring pirates. On Feb. 4, 2009, Rear Admiral Terry McKnight was in the San Antonio’s stateroom when he felt the ship lean. His men had been lowering a 36-foot inflatable boat off the side of the San Antonio when it unexpectedly flipped, sending sailors into the water below.

“It was a beautiful day. The sea state was nil. It was just a real shock,” McKnight recalls.

McKnight found his way to the bridge. He found a crew in search mode. Anyone who had been on the inflatable boat had been tossed into the sea. They never found one of them: 34-year-old Engineman 1st Class Theophilus K. Ansong died in those nil seas, his body never recovered.

The Navy charged the ship’s executive officers with negligence. Cmdr. Eric Cash, the ship’s captain, accepted a reprimand that ended his command. His second-in-command, Lt. Cmdr. Sean Kearns, decided to fight.  

Amphibious transport dock USS San Antonio arrives at Port Everglades in May 2006 to support South Florida’s Fleet Week USA. The vessel would later capsize in 2009, causing the Navy to take it out of service.

At his court-martial two years later in Virginia, Kearns mounted a simple defense: the USS San Antonio was so defective it should never have been at sea. The military jury acquitted Kearns. Afterward, he told a reporter from The Virginian-Pilot that the verdict was more than a personal vindication. “Someone needed to stand up,” he said. He then accused the Navy of failing to give the ship the resources it needs to overcome problems, stating that the sailors who serve on it are “the true victors here.”

After Ansong's death, the Navy took the San Antonio out of service again. That meant it wasn’t on duty two months later, in April 2009, when pirates captured a cargo ship helmed by Capt. Richard Phillips, whose torturous captivity and rescue was later recreated on film by Tom Hanks. 

As the Navy was discovering ruinous flaws in the LPD design, sister ships to the San Antonio set sail. Due to 2,600 documented problems, the USS New Orleans required two years, or 400,000 hours, of repairs. The USS New York had so many issues that the Navy declared any pipe welders who had worked on it no longer certified to build warships. And the USS Green Bay had catastrophic mechanical issues with its steering system, requiring lengthy repairs. 

According to a Navy spokesman, the fixes cost $103 million. But the GAO’s report found that the LPD program’s budget rose from $4 billion to $6 billion. 

By 2012, the Navy had dreamed up a replacement for the LPD, and so it canceled a 12th ship it had intended to build. Instead, it would launch a more advanced design in 2017. If that decision had stood, there would likely be no USS Fort Lauderdale.

Instead, Congress in 2015 budgeted funding for another LPD, according to the Congressional Research Service. It’s unclear how or why, but it likely came thanks to U.S. Rep. Steven Palazzo, a member of the House Committee on Appropriations. (He represents the Mississippi district where the 12th ship will be built.) Palazzo did not respond to requests for comment.

The ship was at first unnamed, and that bode well for Fort Lauderdale Mayor Jack Seiler. Since 2009, he had been lobbying the Navy to name a ship after his city. He had gotten a lot of help, including from then-congressman Allen West and Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the congresswoman and now former chair of the Democratic National Committee. And leading it all was Chuck Black, a former 20-year Navy man who helped organize Fleet Week in Fort Lauderdale.

“This was a real team effort,” Seiler says. “Every single member of our congressional delegation was on board with it. We had people in the room who don’t normally agree on anything.”

 The official announcement came in March of this year. Black lived long enough to see it. He died on July 11, the day he was supposed to speak at an event to celebrate the new ship.

Seiler maintains that the USS Fort Lauderdale will honor Black’s name. During this year’s Fleet Week, Seiler says he asked several admirals about the LPD design. “Some of these admirals are pretty blunt, straight-talkers, and they didn’t mention any problems with the design,” he says. “This thing will be a classic multitasker. It will be capable of all kinds of missions.”

Designed primarily for amphibious assaults, the USS Fort Lauderdale can also handle reconnaissance and humanitarian missions, says Eric Wertheim, an expert in warships at the Naval Institute. It will have a state-of-the-art medical facility that can treat injuries from combat and natural disasters, and its wide hold can accommodate emergency aid for thousands. Unlike its sister ships, the Fort Lauderdale should launch without the flaws that plagued the program for years, Wertheim maintains. “There has been a real eye for quality control since those initial problems,” he says. “When it started, the LPD was a mess. But it really has come around.”

The USS Fort Lauderdale will also be more advanced than its sister ships. The Navy will include technology (that hasn’t been made public yet) meant to bridge a gap between the LPD design and the ship that will replace it sometime in the next decade. But Wertheim says when the USS Fort Lauderdale sets sail in 2021, it will be the most advanced transport ship on the seas.

McKnight, who was not disciplined the day the San Antonio lost a sailor in calm waters, agrees. “I can tell you right now it will be a magnificent ship. It’s well worth the money. It will knock your socks off,” says McKnight, now vice president of government relations in the D.C. office of British defense giant Cobham. “I wouldn’t say it’s a Mercedes-Benz, but I would say you’re getting a Lexus model.”

So, when we head down to the sand to watch the USS Fort Lauderdale steam into Port Everglades, we can hope McKnight is right, that our ship will be a symbol of ingenuity, of overcoming obstacles, of making something second-rate into the envy of the world—perhaps a truly American story. And also, a Fort Lauderdale story.