Metallurgist Admits To Falsifying Navy Submarine Steel Strength Test Results For 36 Years

The Navy had to pay additional maintenance costs to address the potential issues on an undisclosed number of submarines.

Submarine Drydock
U.S. Navy

An undisclosed number of U.S. Navy submarines have had to undergo additional repairs to ensure they remain seaworthy after a metallurgist spent decades faking the results of strength tests related to the boats’ hulls. The person responsible pleaded guilty yesterday to fraud in the case, which related to tests that examined how the submarines would fare in a collision, a very real threat that you can read more about here, or in certain “wartime scenarios.”

Elaine Marie Thomas, 67, of Auburn, Washington, was the director of metallurgy at a foundry in Tacoma that provided steel castings to Electric Boat and Newport News Shipbuilding, which in turn used them for submarine hulls.

Newport News Shipbuilding

A Virginia class submarine undergoes construction art Huntington Ingalls Newport News Shipbuilding in 2012.

The fraudulent activity took place between 1985 and 2017, during which time dozens of nuclear-powered submarines were completed for the Navy. Thomas is said to have provided false results for at least 240 production batches of steel, which amounts to around half of the entire Navy output from the Tacoma foundry in that same period.

The ongoing case at the U.S. District Court in Tacoma has not heard any evidence that any submarine hulls failed as a result of the shortcuts taken, but authorities have confirmed that the Navy has had to pay additional maintenance costs to address potential problems and ensure the affected boats can safely go to sea.

It’s not clear which classes of submarines are involved but in the past, it was reported that the Virginia class fast attack submarines (SSN) were those affected. However, since the fraud dates back to 1985, long before the Virginias started to be built, it’s highly likely that other submarines were also affected. The two companies that received the deficient steel also produced Ohio class ballistic-missile submarines (SSBNs), some of which were later converted into cruise-missile submarines (SSGNs), as well as Los Angeles and Seawolf class SSNs in the period covered. Examples of all of these are in Navy commission today. 

U.S. Navy/Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Amanda Gray

The Los Angeles class submarine USS Olympia (SSN-717) returns to Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, in 2019, following a seven-month deployment. Since the Tacoma steel fraud issue dates back to 1985, it’s possible that earlier SSNs were affected too.

“Ms. Thomas never intended to compromise the integrity of any material and is gratified that the government’s testing does not suggest that the structural integrity of any submarine was in fact compromised,” Thomas’ attorney said in a statement filed on her behalf in district court.

The attorney added that Thomas was not motivated by greed and that “she regrets that she failed to follow her moral compass — admitting to false statements is hardly how she envisioned living out her retirement years.”

Exactly what drove Thomas to falsify the results of the strength tests is still unclear, but according to the Justice Department, she thought it was “stupid” that the Navy demanded the tests be carried out at -100° Fahrenheit. As a result, the department contends, Thomas changed the results to false positives in some cases.

U.S. Navy/Justice Vannatta

The Virginia class submarine USS Mississippi (SSN-782) docks in Dry Dock #1 at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, ahead of an extended dry-docking selected restricted availability.

The alarming case was revealed in 2017, by which time the Tacoma foundry had been acquired by another firm. A lab employee then noted that test cards had been altered and reported this to the parent company, Bradken Inc. of Kansas City, described in court as the Navy’s leading supplier of cast high-yield steel for submarines.

Thomas was removed from her job as a result, and the Navy was informed, but the service was initially told the discrepancies were not the result of fraud. According to prosecutors, this development slowed down the Navy’s investigation and adversely impacted the corrective measures that it introduced. Bradken paid out $10.9 million last year as part of a settlement, accepting responsibility for the offense and agreeing to take remedial measures.

Thomas will be sentenced in February and faces up to 10 years in prison and a $1 million fine. The Justice Department said it would recommend a prison term at the low end of whatever the court determines is the standard sentencing range in her case.

Clearly, the strength and toughness of the steel used to fabricate submarines’ hulls are of paramount importance to their safe and effective operation. Moreover, since the loss of the USS Thresher (SSN-593) in 1963, the Navy has called upon especially stringent requirements to ensure its submarines are safe, under the SUBSAFE program.

U.S. Navy

The USS Thresher, while underway in April 1961. The loss of this submarine prompted a thorough review of Navy safety standards.

What seems especially concerning in this instance is that it took the Navy such a long time to realize something was amiss, considering that Thomas began to tamper with test results as early as 1985.

Last year, however, the Navy declared that it was confident that measures taken to address any possible hazard related to the falsification had been successful. “We have done the work to understand any potential risk, and believe we have mitigated any potential risk for our in-service submarines,” James Geurts, Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Research, Development, and Acquisition said the Navy, told USNI News. “It did cost us some time to go do the exploration to make sure that we were comfortable with the safety of our sailors,” he added.

Geurts also said the Navy had examined submarines under construction to determine if there were any legacy problems as a result of the Tacoma steel. “We have done a sweep of any material that was in the queue for new construction submarines, he told USNI News. “We’re confident in the material for any of the new construction submarines,” he said.

Both Electric Boat and Newport News Shipbuilding continue to use steel provided by the Tacoma foundry.

Meanwhile, falsification in the production of submarine components is not an entirely new occurrence, as far as the Navy is concerned.

In 2019, for instance, Huntington Ingalls Industries, the largest U.S. military shipbuilder, was accused of falsifying tests and certifications on stealth coatings for its Virginia class submarines. A federal court was told at the time that the alleged falsified records “put American lives at risk” and that the company acted “knowingly and/or recklessly.” Authorities were alerted to that incident by the actions of a whistleblower, a former Huntington Ingalls employee.

U.S. Navy/Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Daniel Hinton

Members of the Outrigger Canoe Club escort the Virginia class submarine USS Hawaii (SSN-776) as it arrives at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam in June 2019. Note the various missing anechoic tiles on the hull, which is typical after the completion of a long deployment.

In that case, the alleged shortcuts taken by Huntington Ingalls’ Newport News Shipbuilding facility in Virginia left the class of attack submarines “plagued” with problems, according to reports. These deficiencies relating to the stealth coatings had originally appeared as early as 2011, however — again meaning there were several years in which the apparent falsifications seem to have gone unnoticed.

In a separate issue, back in 2018, it emerged that faulty welds had been found in some of the missile tube assemblies being manufactured for the future Columbia class SSBNs. While building these in advance was meant to save costs, the service ended up having to address costly and time-consuming fixes.

U.S. NAVY/Mass Communications Specialist First Class John Banfield

The Naval Foundry and Propeller Center (NFPC) in Philadelphia, a detachment of Norfolk Naval Shipyard, makes the first casting for a Columbia class submarine in August 2020. At more than 200,000 pounds, the casting was the largest of its kind in American history.

With enormously expensive and high-profile programs for both new SSBNs and SSNs now underway, after this fiasco, the Navy will surely be keeping an especially close eye on the production quality of structural components needed to ensure these powerful submarines perform according to their exacting specifications.

Contact the author: thomas@thedrive.com