The 'Pinking' of the Fleet
The Honolulu Star-Advertiser
HONOLULU — Haze gray and underway they're not.
These old Navy ships are parked, and some are getting as pink as a tourist in the sun.
Yes, pink ships in the Navy, and no, not for Breast Cancer Awareness Month.
At least four warships in the Naval Inactive Ship Maintenance Facility at Pearl Harbor — a sort of mothball fleet — are taking on some patchy sandy-pink hues.
A Navy official said some ships still on active duty also have the "pinking" in hard-to-paint areas such as the masting.
Not since the fictional submarine Sea Tiger went on patrol in bright pink in the 1959 comedy "Operation Petticoat," and the British tried out "Mountbatten pink" in World War II, has the Navy blushed this badly.
The culprit is "low solar absorbance" paint developed in the mid-1990s — and tested in Hawaii — to reflect the hot Middle Eastern sun, according to Naval Sea Systems Command in Washington, D.C.
Officials are still not exactly sure what happened to the paint over time — a blue in the color makeup may have washed out or deteriorated — but a result was the "problem" pinkish tone.
"Pink is not a camouflage color in the Navy," said Mark Ingle, a "coatings and corrosion control" expert for the sea systems command. "We want haze gray."
The color change has been noted elsewhere.
"I live pretty close to the Philadelphia Navy yard, and I find that the ships are turning pink," said a YouTube video maker in 2012. "What's going on with the Navy? How come their ships are going from gray to pink?"
Some former crew members aren't thrilled with the "un-warshiplike" tone, either.
"I hate to see it turn pink," said 64-year-old Indiana resident Don Beutien of his former ship, the retired amphibious transport dock Juneau, one of those turning color at Pearl Harbor.
The paint applied in the old days was carbon black and white. But carbon black happens to be the worst possible absorber for all spectrums of electromagnetic radiation, Ingle said.
With things heating up in the Middle East — and on its ships — the Naval Research Laboratory did away with carbon black, replacing it with a new "low solar absorbance" topside paint that included blue, red and yellow, Ingle said.
When all the new colors were mixed together, out came the desired haze gray.
Ingle said the Navy saved millions of dollars in air-conditioning upgrades that it didn't have to make because ships stayed cooler.
With the blue degrading over time, however, that left more of the yellow and red — and the dreaded "pinking" that still dogs the fleet years later.
"The ships docked on a cycle of about three to five years, so every few years the ship would be in (for maintenance), and it would either be completely overcoated or it would be completely blasted and repainted," Ingle said.
The paint was "just fine for three to five years," he added. The ships were haze gray, and they had cost-saving low solar absorbance benefits.
But as time went on, that docking cycle lengthened, reaching 12 years in some cases, Ingle said. Navy budget shortfalls have resulted in some well-publicized cases of deferred maintenance.
The Navy demonstrated the low solar absorbance paint on the destroyer USS Fletcher in the mid-1990s in Hawaii, Ingle said. He postulates that every ship in the fleet got some of the paint at some point in its lifetime.
And that's where the pink started to show up.
"So we recognized this as a problem," Ingle said. The inactive fleet shipyards are where it's become the most visible problem.
Naval Sea Systems Command has three such yards — in Pearl Harbor's Middle Loch, Philadelphia and Bremerton, Wash. — with 45 ships in its custody.
Some of the older ships are kept for possible reuse or for foreign sale, while others are awaiting the scrap heap or use in "sink exercises."
The solution to the pinking was to develop a new type of topside paint called polysiloxane, Ingle said.
"The new chemistry, the resin doesn't yellow," he said. "It's a much more durable resin, so the pigments don't wash out."
In 2010 the Navy issued a directive that existing stocks of the older "Type 2" low solar absorbance paint could be used up, and then new "Type 3" polysiloxane should be applied, Ingle said.
"You kind of have this lag time for the Type 2 (paints) to work their way out of the system," he said. On some ships in service, it's still possible to see pinking on a mast, he added.
The battleship Missouri, a museum piece in Pearl Harbor, is among the ships painted with the new polysiloxane, he said.
The good news is that the new paint shows no perceptible color shift after several years, he said.
The bad news is that inactive fleet ships, which aren't usually repainted, might turn even pinker.
The decommissioned amphibious ships Ogden, Duluth, Juneau and Tarawa are all showing varying degrees of rosiness.
The Tarawa and Juneau are listed by the Navy as "retention" assets — to be used in an emergency, while the Duluth is expected to be scrapped and the Ogden sunk in an exercise.
Overall, 13 ships are maintained in the inactive yard, Naval Sea Systems Command said.
Ingle said he's not aware of topside repainting of any inactive ships unless a ship is headed to a museum.
With the new paint, "we're hoping, as we go out in time, we'll provide literally decades of color-stable performance while we are saving energy and reducing maintenance costs," Ingle said.
Hawaii, meanwhile, has a pink hospital, a pink hotel and now some pink Navy ships.
There's some other military history of pinking — some P-40 fighters with the 57th Fighter Group were painted a sand color that faded to pink during World War II.
Beutien, a Juneau "plank owner," or original crew member, did two combat tours off Vietnam on the amphibious ship between 1969 and 1972.
The last pink ship he remembers was the "Operation Petticoat" sub, which was likely about as hard to miss then as his former ship and some others are getting now.
He recalls that a pink Sea Tiger "was in Long Beach for years" tied up to the pier. The movie was followed by a TV series.
But even that sub didn't stay pink.
"The Navy eventually did paint it gray again before they disposed of it," Beutien said.