Athabaskan Engine Problems (Again)

Reports on the engine failure in HMCS Athabaskan are missing some important aspects of the problems this ancient warship is facing. One of the two cruise turbines failed, leaving one other plus the two high-speed turbines. The ship should be able to function with that degree of redundancy and indeed many ships that I sailed onboard went about their missions in much worse mechanical condition. So why the major expense and effort to replace that engine at this juncture?

A navy spokesperson’s comment that, “engine replacements are sometimes required, regardless of the class or age of ship,” is a weak attempt to ‘spin’ this most recent breakdown in a more favourable way. Engine replacement is not a minor issue and it is only done when absolutely necessary outside of a major refit.

I believe the answer to the question “Why now?” is that the navy has no confidence in the engineering condition of the ship. If they did, the ship would undoubtedly continue on her assigned mission and replace the engine when and where it was convenient and economical to do so. This situation is something other than ‘normal’.

In today’s Defence Watch, David Pugliese reports that the cause of the engine failure was not related to the cruise turbine itself, but to the lubricating oil system. Without lubrication, any moving machinery will rapidly overheat. Failures of the lube-oil system are considered ‘engineering emergencies’ of the first order. The affected system must be shut down immediately to prevent catastrophic damage (junking the engine) and secondary consequences (fires or explosions). These are such important events that responses to engine emergencies are practiced daily to be sure that the staff on watch will react swiftly and correctly. In this case, the engine was ruined so we must wonder what happened to the preplanned response to prevent exactly that kind of outcome.

The ship has already been stripped out of much of its major weapons and sensors. The main reason Athabaskan was sent overseas is to serve as a training platform for the large numbers of junior sailors that need sea time to get their professional certifications and trade qualifications completed. Training in an ancient warship may not be inspirational but it will certainly afford opportunities to see real problems and learn their consequences. This looks like it was just that sort of event.


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