At Least 3 Engineering Incidents and Poor Leadership Kept USS Boxer from Deploying, Investigations Reveal

by Braxton Taylor

The USS Boxer — an amphibious assault ship that was beset by maintenance issues — is still waiting to deploy despite months of assurances that preparations were being made to ready the ship.

Throughout last year, Navy officials refused to acknowledge the possibility of deeper problems on the ship, often citing the need for operational security, or they argued that, while some maintenance issues existed, the crew was ready and excited to deploy.

Now, a pair of command investigations into engineering issues on the Boxer reveal that the Navy not only struggled to correctly repair the aging ship, but her engineering department was poorly led and suffering from issues that ranged from inexperience to outright allegations of assault that directly impacted the ship’s ability to get out to sea and, in turn, her deployment schedule.

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As a result, the Boxer — the flagship of an amphibious ready group that one defense official told Military.com was supposed to deploy late last year — appears to be far from joining one of the ships from the group that has already made it to the Pacific.

The revelations come amid reports that the Boxer’s sister ship, the USS Wasp, is also suffering from maintenance and engineering problems on the East Coast while Navy officials again refuse to elaborate or offer details.

The Boxer’s long journey to her deployment began after she underwent a $200 million, two-year overhaul that ended in 2022. The maintenance period was not only supposed to help keep the various systems on the nearly 30-year-old ship running but provide a deck upgrade that would allow the ship to support the new F-35B Lightning II strike fighter.

After that overhaul, the Boxer briefly put to sea in June 2022; then, for more than a year, the ship stayed in port.

At the time, in late July 2023, Cmdr. Arlo Abrahamson, a spokesman for the Naval Surface Force, wouldn’t tell Military.com what issues specifically kept the ship in port, citing “operational security,” but stressed that its crew remained “focused on readiness and preparing for sea trials and the eventual deployment of the ship.”

Abrahamson specifically noted that the crew was “maintaining certifications and qualifications, while conducting integrated training and simulated multi-day underway evolutions.”

However, a command investigation, released to Military.com via a Freedom of Information Act request, revealed that between January and November 2023, the ship was investigated for at least three different engineering breakdowns that, according to the Boxer’s strike group commander, were “caused by a lack of procedural compliance, substandard supervisory oversight, and general complacency by the crew.”

The investigation revealed that the ship experienced damage to two “forced draft blowers” on Nov. 8, 2022. A separate investigation into that incident, also provided to Military.com via FOIA request, faulted “poor quality craftsmanship, lack of industry repair skill set/capabilities” and a “lack of supervisory oversight” from the Navy offices overseeing the work.

Then, on May 14, 2023, the ship had a “boiler safety” breakdown. That investigation “once again revealed a lack of procedural compliance and overall complacency of all personnel involved,” the documents from the strike group commander said.

Although his name is redacted in the released version of the report, Rear Adm. Randall Peck is the commander of Expeditionary Strike Group 3 and the commander who ordered the most recent investigation.

The last incident revealed in the pair of investigations occurred on July 11, 2023 — just a bit more than two weeks before Abrahamson would claim the ship’s crew was “focused on readiness” and preparing for deployment.

It found that the ship’s engineers allowed one of the main reduction gears, or MRGs — essentially transmissions from the turbines to the propellers — to turn without any lubrication.

A reduction gear is a critically important and expensive part of the ship, easily costing into the tens of millions of dollars.

“All watchstanders displayed an appalling lack of procedural compliance and general complacency in this casualty,” Peck wrote in accepting the investigation’s results.

The whole incident “can be best characterized as a near miss given that the MRG was not damaged,” investigators wrote. Meanwhile, Peck noted that a sole sailor, whose name is redacted in the released investigation, “displayed a questioning attitude and level of knowledge that ultimately kept the ship from experiencing extensive damage.”

The Boxer would eventually set sail just over a month later on Aug. 18, but as she left San Diego Harbor, she started to spew black smoke from her stacks, and radio traffic from the ship declared that they “just had an engineering casualty.”

At the time, Abrahamson suggested that the smoke was connected to “when engineering systems are being tested during a sea trial period” and again stressed that “there is no current impact to the mission, and Boxer remains focused on executing its sea trials.”

However, Peck’s letter reviewing the investigation into the July MRG incident said the exact opposite.

In his letter, Peck said that “every level of senior engineering leadership failed to provide a safe, professional, and procedurally compliant work environment in engineering department” and he stressed that “these failures had direct, measurable impacts on USS Boxer’s upcoming deployment and impeded the overall accomplishment of the strike group’s mission.”

“The Navy’s Pacific Fleet was less ready and less capable because of USS Boxer’s shortfalls,” he added.

Previous incidents of assault

The incident with the reduction gear revealed that the ship’s engineering department was fraught with problems and poor leadership.

After learning of the incident, the ship’s chief engineer — the top leader in the department and one of the most senior officers aboard any warship — withheld the news that his team inadvertently ran one of the most critical and irreplaceable parts of the plant without lube oil from the Boxer’s commander for more than 24 hours, the investigation found.

Peck also said that he was “disturbed by the lack of involvement” of the ship’s main propulsion assistant — a sailor who is described as “the most experienced engineer onboard, second only to the chief engineer, with over 27 years of naval service” — who was present for all three incidents but failed to make sure sailors were properly trained and led.

Meanwhile, the ship’s engineers were also lacking a top enlisted leader — a position known as “Top Snipe.”

The investigation said the post had “been unfilled since early June 2023 due to impending administrative action” but offered no further detail.

Amid the numerous privacy redactions, investigators also made several references to a senior enlisted sailor who was “formally counseled by engineering department leadership as many as six times” and a December 2022 climate survey that “revealed undertones of unprofessional and toxic leadership.”

Peck’s letter also notes that in October 2023 he closed out an investigation “into allegations of assault and failure to report previous incidents of assault within [the] USS Boxer engineering department.”

The assault allegations also involved the “senior enlisted engineer” aboard the ship, who had a “responsibility to lead and train junior enlisted personnel and control the engineering plant” but, according to Peck, “failed miserably in this regard.”

Due to privacy redactions, it is not fully clear how many of the references and allegations refer to the same sailors.

Military.com was not able to review that investigation because it was not part of the FOIA request documents, and so it was unclear whether the assault allegations were substantiated.

The admiral behind the investigation noted that the “investigation revealed not only a failure by senior personnel to uphold military standards, but also revealed other issues” that were connected to key engineering watch stations.

Amid this chaotic and seemingly toxic climate, outside units that came to the Boxer to assess its crew and help it prepare itself for deployment found that the ship was struggling to operate its power plant and get to sea.

“Several previous attempts have been made in late 2022 and 2023 to complete master light off checklists … and get underway,” investigators said, before adding that “in each of these cases, engineering casualties or inoperable engineering equipment prevented the ship from taking to sea.”

One of those casualties was to the ship’s forced draft blowers — a key component of the boiler system — that happened in November 2022. The blowers, according to the investigation, were a problem as the ship went into the shipyard, and they were overhauled at the time.

However, after the Boxer left the yards, they failed and in August 2022 the Navy repaired them again, discovering that there were issues with the original installation.

Much of the fault for the issue was levied at inexperienced contractors and the Navy’s Sea Systems Command, which oversaw ship repairs and had reduced checkpoints “for the sake of production schedules and overhaul costs across the waterfront.”

Sailors on the ship were part of the problem too, however, when they took actions that went against guidelines and highlighted “a lack of procedural compliance on the part of [the] ship’s forces.”

The investigators argued that this “insufficient familiarity” was at least partially due to the length of the Boxer’s maintenance period and crew turnover.

Deployment delays

The numerous delays encountered by the Boxer have not only opened the Navy to questions about the readiness of its amphibious fleet but have also frustrated some defense officials in the Pentagon, who argued there was a connection between the need to keep the USS Bataan, another amphibious ship, and its amphibious ready group deployed because the Boxer was unable to sail.

In an email to Military.com, Abrahamson confirmed last week that the Boxer Amphibious Ready Group also includes USS Somerset and USS Harpers Ferry.

The Somerset is now in the Pacific, seemingly participating in the deployment that all three ships are meant to be conducting. The ship participated in an international exercise — Cobra Gold — earlier in March, apparently taking at least part of the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit along with it.

Military.com understands that this trend — Marine expeditionary units being forced to deploy with less than three ships in their configuration — is on the rise and, from the Corps’ perspective, has prevented Marines from fulfilling their operations.

Abrahamson argued that “ARG ships don’t always operate together during their deployments” and that “it is plausible that one ship from an ARG can be assigned to a given exercise while other ships in the ARG perform other missions.”

While the Navy has been known to split up an ARG — for a while, the Bataan and the rest of its group were in two separate seas in the Middle East — it is not clear whether there is a precedent for making the same characterization when one of the ships hasn’t left home port.

Adding to the issue is the fact that it appears a situation similar to the Boxer’s is now developing on the East Coast.

Last week, ship watchers spotted the USS Wasp — the same class of ship as the Boxer — depart Naval Station Norfolk, Virginia, only to return shortly afterward, apparently with tugs alongside it. Citing radio traffic, social media posts said that the ship suffered an engineering casualty with its driveshaft.

Military.com reached out to the Navy for details but, like with the Boxer, was told that the sea service would not discuss details.

A Navy spokesperson confirmed that the Wasp “was conducting sea trials following a maintenance availability” before adding that “we don’t discuss details about maintenance casualties.”

The Wasp returned to Naval Station Norfolk last July after spending nearly 18 months in dry-dock.

When Military.com asked about the ship returning to port with a tug and reports of propeller shaft damage, Lt. Cmdr. David Carter, a spokesman for the Navy’s Fleet Forces Command, said that he did “not have additional details to provide at the moment” and that the ship “is undergoing maintenance at Naval Station Norfolk and will continue its sea trials in the future.”

Last week, Abrahamson said “that Boxer and crew are ready and the crew continues to make preparations for their deployment.”

However, that deployment will happen under the command of a captain who, according to Peck’s letter in the investigation, has been issued a “Letter of Instruction” for “his inability to fulfill his duties as executive officer (XO) by his failure to ensure the engineering training team … was functioning properly and his failure to ensure an accurate annual review of records was completed.”

Peck added that as commander, Capt. Brian “Holmes must continue to lead the ship and engineering department in their efforts to ensure procedural compliance and sound engineering watchstanding practices.”

The November letter also said Peck “documented [the prior captain’s] deficiencies in a special transfer evaluation” and he intended to start discharge proceedings against the main propulsion assistant.

The investigation noted that the chief engineer was formally transferred off the ship on July 21, 2023, but Peck agreed to send the investigation to his new command “for further disposition.”

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