Whistleblower accuses largest US military shipbuilder of putting ‘American lives at risk’ by falsifying tests on submarine stealth coating

VIDEO: The USS Missouri — A Virginia-Class Attack Submarine At Sea

America's largest military shipbuilding company has been accused of falsifying tests and certifications on stealth coatings of its submarines "that put American lives at risk," according to a complaint filed in federal court last month.

Huntington Ingalls Industries, which spun-off from Northrop Grumman in 2011, "knowingly and/or recklessly" filed falsified records with the Navy claiming it had correctly applied a coating, called a Special Hull Treatment, to Virginia-class attack submarines which would allow the vessels to elude enemy sonar, the Sept. 26 complaint alleges.

Instead, the complaint said, Huntington Ingalls' Newport News Shipbuilding facility in Virginia took shortcuts that allegedly "plagued" the class of submarines with problems, and then retaliated against the employee who spoke up about the issues.

Huntington Ingalls, and Northrop Grumman, are being sued for damages in excess of $100 million for allegedly misleading the federal government on a defense contract to apply the sound-dampening coating to the submarines. The Navy's Virginia-class attack submarines are manufactured as part of a joint effort by General Dynamics' Electric Boat and Huntington Ingalls.

The complaint alleges that Northrop Grumman and Huntington Ingalls Industries violated the federal government's False Claims Act when they "falsified testing and certifications on multi-billion dollar submarine contracts."

The complaint goes on to note that the companies "induced the government to pay the defendants in-full for submarines with dangerous defects that put American lives at risk."

The qui tam lawsuit – a type of suit which is brought under the False Claims Act and rewards whistleblowers in successful cases where the government recoups damages due to fraud – is being brought by Ari Lawrence on behalf of the U.S. Government. According to the complaint, Lawrence, a senior engineer who worked at Huntington Ingalls until 2017, provided evidence of the alleged issues at the company's Newport News Shipbuilding facility in Virginia.

"I could not in good conscience sit back and watch, be a party to, or provide my signature in the course of accepting work that clearly did not meet contractual requirements and standards," Lawrence said in a statement provided by his attorneys to Task & Purpose after this article's publication. "I could not abide allowing materials I believed to be defective to be installed on submarines bearing our company's good name."

The lawsuit was dismissed on Oct. 1 by a federal judge in Florida, where it was filed, though Lawrence and his attorneys intend to refile the complaint, according to one of Larence's attorneys.

"The complaint was struck by the court on technical pleading grounds, not on its merits," Kenneth Yoffy, who's representing Lawrence, told Task & Purpose on Oct. 9. "We will be filing an amended complaint this week as the court has allowed. We fully intend to pursue this case as we are all concerned about the safety of our sailors. Our client has demonstrated a deep commitment to protect the integrity of the shipbuilding process and has done this at great cost to himself personally. He should have been commended for his courage by the shipyard rather than treated in the manner in which he was."

When asked about the lawsuit, the Navy referred Task & Purpose to the Department of Justice, which declined to comment. Northrop Grumman also did not respond.

Duane Bourne, a Huntington Ingalls spokesman, told Task & Purpose that "we fully cooperated with the Department of Justice's investigation and intend to vigorously defend the lawsuit."

When pressed for comment on the findings of the investigation both Huntington Ingalls and the Department of Justice declined to elaborate.

"Newport News Shipbuilding remains committed to building the highest-quality warships for the Navy and does not tolerate any conduct that compromises our mission of delivering ships that safeguard our nation and its sailors," Bourne told Task & Purpose.

The complaint revolves around critical submarine components that Huntington Ingalls was paid to produce; specifically the application of the Special Hull Treatment to Virginia-class attack subs.

The foam-rubber-like exterior coating is designed to absorb sound waves of active sonar so they don't bounce back to the ship or submarine sending out the signal. It's essentially glued onto a submarine using a special two-part adhesive coating (TPAC).

However, the complaint claims that "Huntington Ingalls had never obtained proper qualifications and certifications for the use of TPAC on the Virginia-class submarines for any applications."

Such certifications are "critical to ensure that the personnel used to mix and apply the TPAC are properly qualified and that the procedures are performed correctly," the complaint said.

The complaint alleges that the sound-dampening coating was improperly affixed – allegedly due to the lack of certified personnel applying the TPAC – which caused the coating to "de-bond" and slip off the submarines while underway. According to the complaint, "since the inception of the program, Virginia-class submarines have been plagued with problems with their exterior hull coating system," including an incident in 2007 on the USS Virginia, the first submarine of its class.

A 2010 photo of the side of the USS Virginia appears to show that the Special Hull Treatment peeled off while the submarine was underway.(U.S. Navy photo)

"At that time, it was clear that there was a de-bonding problem with the exterior coating," the complaint reads. "In fact, on the USS Virginia, and subsequently delivered Virginia-class submarines, the exterior coatings tore off submarines while underway, often in large sections up to hundreds of square feet."

The issue has been broadly reported in recent years, including in 2017, after photos surfaced showing the USS Mississippi returning to its home port in Hawaii with large portions of its Special Hull Treatment coating missing from the sub.

That de-bonding issue was also noted in a memo from the Pentagon's top weapon system tester, according to a 2011 Congressional Research Service report.

"The [stealth] coating on Virginia-class submarines has been a big issue in the Navy and among Navy submariners," Bryan Clark, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments and a retired submariner, told Task & Purpose.

While the stealth coating also came off on older submarines, like the Los Angeles-class fast attack subs, typically it was just a matter of a few individual tiles peeling off, Clark said.

"You'd expect that to happen," he told Task & Purpose. "You're driving around, the hull is expanding and contracting, the water temperature is fluctuating, so some of these tiles come loose. It was just kind of expected."

However, because of how the stealth coating was applied to the Virginia-class submarines — in a continuous layer like paint — it tears off in irregular pieces that may remain partially adhered to the hull, he said.

"If you're driving around and a chunk of this comes off and is kind of dangling there, that creates a lot of noise," Clark told Task & Purpose.

And that's a big problem since a submarine's greatest strength is its stealth.

The attack submarine USS Virginia (SSN 774) departs Naval Submarine Base New London to begin her first scheduled full-length deployment in October 2009. (U.S. Navy/by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Steven Myers)

"The submarine being quiet is its main advantage," Clark said. "It's what allows it to get close to shore to deliver SEALs, shoot cruise missiles in somewhere, or to do surveillance. So that ability to get close to a target is really important."

"So if you do get detected, then you're limited in your ability to protect yourself, or to run away quickly," Clark added. "An airplane can get away quickly if it gets detected and can hopefully outrun a threat, and a ship has a bunch of self-defense systems that it can use to stand and fight. A submarine really has neither of those advantages."

The complaint appears to lay the blame for the failure of the Special Hull Treatment on Virginia-class submarines squarely on Huntington Ingalls' Newport News Shipbuilding facility: "The failure of the sound-absorbing material is a direct result of NNS' failure to adhere to proper Navy contract specifications and a direct effort to conceal that lack of qualifications and certifications required by the Navy."

The 37-page complaint also claims that Huntington Ingalls' Newport facility failed to take steps to correct its failings despite multiple complaints, and that Ari Lawrence — the engineer who brought the suit on behalf of the government — was pressured to keep quiet about the issues.

In the complaint, Lawrence claims he had his promotion blocked in addition to being marked as a security risk and having his cell-phone confiscated for four weeks. Lawrence also claimed he was reassigned from his previous duties and sent to "the 'yard' to work on his 'engineering rigor,'" and in 2015, his performance ratings were reduced to the lowest rating he'd received since he began working at NNS.

The full complaint can be read here.

UPDATE: This article was updated on Oct. 9 with statements from Ari Lawrence and his attorney Kenneth Yoffy, which were provided to Task & Purpose after the article's publication.

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