The US Navy isn't saying which subs are affected, but court documents say they received inferior metal products for decades due to fraud on the part of a supplier. Credit: Handout.

For decades, the US Navy unknowingly received subpar steel for many of its submarines after a long-time employee of the service’s leading supplier falsified lab results, calling toughness tests conducted at negative-100 degrees Fahrenheit “a stupid requirement.”

The anomaly was only discovered when an alert metallurgist being groomed to replace the worker upon her planned 2017 retirement noticed suspicious results, Gene Johnson of the Associated Press reported.

It’s being alleged that the falsified lab results put US Navy sailors at greater risk in the event of collisions or other impacts, federal prosecutors said in court filings.

The supplier, Kansas City-based Bradken Inc., paid US$10.9 million as part of a deferred prosecution agreement, the Justice Department said.

The company provides high-strength steel castings that Navy contractors Electric Boat and Newport News Shipbuilding use to make submarine hulls, the report said.

“Bradken placed the Navy’s sailors and its operations at risk,” US Attorney Brian Moran said in the written statement.

“The Navy has taken extensive steps to ensure the safe operation of the affected submarines. Those measures will result in increased costs and maintenance. Our agreement with the company is aimed at ensuring they improve their procedures and inform their peer companies about how their systems failed to detect the fraud.”

Bradken learned in 2017 that the foundry’s director of metallurgy had been falsifying the results of strength tests, indicating that the steel was strong enough to meet the Navy’s requirements when in fact it was not.

The company initially disclosed its findings to the Navy, but then suggested that the discrepancies were not the result of fraud, the report said. That hindered the Navy’s investigation into the scope of the problem as well as its efforts to remediate the risks to its sailors, prosecutors said.

An analysis of company records showed that she
fabricated the results of 240 productions of steel

There is no allegation that any submarine parts failed, but prosecutors said the Navy had incurred increased costs and maintenance to ensure the subs remain seaworthy, the report said.

The foundry’s director of metallurgy, Elaine Thomas, 66, of Auburn, Wash., was charged criminally with one count of major fraud against the United States.

Thomas, who worked in various capacities at the lab for 40 years, was due to make an initial appearance in federal court June 30, the report said.

An analysis of internal company records showed that she fabricated the results of 240 productions of steel, representing nearly half of the high-yield steel Bradken produced for Navy submarines — often toughness tests conducted at negative-100 degrees Fahrenheit, the complaint said.

When a special agent with the Department of Defense’s Criminal Investigative Service confronted her with falsified results dating back to 1990, she eventually conceded that the results were altered — “Yeah, that looks bad,” the complaint quoted her as saying.

She said she may have done it because she believed it was “a stupid requirement” that the test be conducted at such a cold temperature, the report said.

The castings start as molten metal, which is poured into a mold and cooled, The Seattle Times reported.

The contractor is required to report the testing results for the heat that produces these parts and certify it meets all specifications.

A substantial percentage of two types of castings — known as HY-80 and Hy-100 — failed to meet specifications between 1985 and 2017, but they were falsely represented to the Navy as meeting the standards, according to the charging document.