Decision pits push to add carriers against key resilience test
Pentagon tester cites need to know if systems work in combat
U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis is weighing a Navy request to delay for at least six years the shock testing intended to determine how well its new $12.9 billion aircraft carrier could withstand attack.
The decision pits the Navy’s push to have an 11-carrier fleet ready to deploy as soon as possible against warnings from the Pentagon’s testing office that the USS Gerald R. Ford shouldn’t be deployed for initial combat duty until it’s gone through the tests, which involve setting off underwater charges to check the resilience of a ship’s key systems.
Mattis’s decision will be an indication of how he balances the need for rigorous weapons testing against delivering on his national defense strategy, which calls for deploying a more lethal force. In its proposed budget for fiscal 2019, the Navy removed funding for the test, which had been scheduled to start late next year.
The Ford is now scheduled to be ready for initial combat duty in 2022. The service wants to put off the shock testing and do it on the second carrier in the new class, the USS John F. Kennedy, which is scheduled for delivery in September 2024.
In a shock trial, a crew is on board, and the test isn’t intended to damage equipment. The results are used to judge vulnerabilities and design changes that may be needed.
“There are four major new systems on this aircraft carrier” for launching and landing aircraft, detecting aircraft and missiles and moving ordnance in elevators from deep inside the vessel, Robert Behler, the Pentagon’s new chief of testing said in an interview. “I think we have to know if those systems continue to work in a combat environment,” he said, but the decision of whether the shock tests occur next year “is not mine to make.”
Asked about Mattis’s review of the issue, Navy Commander Patrick Evans, a Pentagon spokesman, said in an email, “Secretary Mattis will respond directly to the Navy when he makes a decision.”
President Donald Trump promised the “12-carrier Navy we need” as he stood on the Ford’s vast deck during a visit in March 2017 to Newport News, Virginia, where Huntington Ingalls Industries Inc. built the ship.
Two more ships in the Ford class, the Kennedy and Enterprise, are currently part of the program that’s now estimated to cost $45.7 billion. That includes $2.8 billion for the vessels’ electromagnetic launch system. An older carrier, the USS Nimitz, is scheduled for retirement in the next decade.
Captain Danny Hernandez, a Navy acquisitions spokesman, said in an email that “internal discussions on Full Ship Shock Trials” continue “as we look at the technical and programmatic aspects.” He wouldn’t discuss the Navy’s fiscal 2019 budget plans.
Through late January, Hernandez said, the Ford “conducted over 700 catapult launches” and landings, including more than 100 launches and recoveries in one day on two separate occasions.
But Behler cited concerns about the survivability of key systems on the Ford carrier, which is designated CVN-78, in a memo to Mattis last month accompanying his annual report on major weapons systems. He echoed issues raised by his predecessor Michael Gilmore.
“The CVN-78 is making progress, however, reliability of the newly designed catapults, arresting gear, weapons elevators and radar, which are all critical for flight operations, have the potential to limit the CVN-78 ability to generate sorties,” Behler wrote. “Additionally, the survivability of these newly designed systems remains unknown until the CVN-78 undergoes full ship shock trials.”
Citing all of the technical setbacks that delayed the official delivery of the carrier from September 2014 to May 2017, Behler said in his annual report that “it is clear that the need to conduct” the shock tests “has not been a factor delaying the ship’s first deployment.”
The Navy probably will still need to spend as much as $780 million to finish deferred work, correct deficiencies and conduct the Pentagon-mandated shock test and other outfitting, the Government Accountability Office said in a July report.