Defense

The High Cost of Waging War on Rust


On June 6-9, Norfolk, Va., will play host to Mega Rust 2011. That's not a gathering of middle-aged Metallica fans but a conference sponsored by the U.S. Navy to bring together experts in the field of corrosion and discuss the latest prevention strategies.

The Pentagon spends $22.9 billion a year fighting rust—almost twice as much as the cost of a new Navy aircraft carrier and about as much as 55 F-22 Raptors, the Air Force's premier fighter jet. Dealing with corrosion in ships, tanks, planes, and other equipment will cost an estimated $114.5 billion over the next five years. The sum dwarfs the $78 billion in savings projected in outgoing Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates's budget, which covers the same period. "It's certainly a huge expense, and I fully expect it will grow," says Winslow T. Wheeler, director of the Straus Military Reform Project at the Center for Defense Information in Washington. "The equipment inventory of all services is significantly older than it used to be."

To battle the stealth enemy, Congress in 2003 mandated the creation of a Corrosion Policy and Oversight Office within the Pentagon. "Corrosion is a pervasive menace," says Daniel Dunmire, the office's director, who heads a four-person crew that works out of leased office space about a mile from the Pentagon. "We can't afford not to do something about it." Dunmire is optimistic that new technology and stepped-up maintenance could cut the annual cost of corrosion by as much as 30 percent in about 20 years.

News from the front lines is encouraging. At the Navy, where fighting the effects of saltwater is a never-ending chore, a new method for coating the tanks used to carry jet fuel and ballast water on ships could save about $240 million in maintenance over the next 10 to 20 years, says William Needham, a retired Navy captain who now works for the service as a corrosion engineer. What used to require three coatings can now be done with just one, he says. Rust on Navy ships and Navy and Marine Corps aircraft that travel on them makes up $6.2 billion of the Pentagon's annual corrosion bill, according to data compiled for the Defense Dept. by LMI, a consulting firm in McLean, Va.

Ted Bates, a technical fellow at Boeing (BA), says corrosion has become more of a problem because of the military's decision to extend the life of aging aircraft. The B-52H bomber was designed by Boeing in the 1950s and built in the early 1960s to operate for 12 to 15 years. Fifty years later the B-52s are still in service. Battling rust on the planes, says Bates, may require replacing metal, applying coatings, or designing and making new parts. "It's not very sexy work," says Bates. "It's just hard work."

Lockheed Martin (LMT), builder of the F-22 Raptor fighter jet and the new F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, has spent more than $15 million in research and development on corrosion prevention strategies in the past 10 years, according to company spokesman Joe Stout—a figure that includes government subsidies. Corrosion became a problem in the F-22 soon after the plane was introduced in 2005. The tab for repairs is expected to run to $228 million through 2016, according to the Government Accountability Office.

The Marine Corps, the military's smallest service, is the only one to have seen corrosion costs drop in recent years, from $545 million in 2005 to $460 million in 2008. Matt Koch, the Marines' program manager for corrosion prevention and control, says the savings are the result of a 2005 decision to outsource the maintenance of vehicles. "There are more things the Marines should be doing other than busting rust," says Koch.

As part of its efforts to hold rust at bay, the Defense Dept. is helping fund the country's first bachelor's degree program in corrosion engineering at the University of Akron. Enrollment in the program, which is about a year old, will grow gradually. Ten students have completed their freshman year, and there is room for as many as 30 in classes that begin this fall.

The bottom line: Outsourcing and new technologies are key to the Pentagon's plans to cut the cost of fighting rust by 30 percent in 20 years.

Lerman is a reporter for Bloomberg News in Washington.

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