Questions Persist For Carrier Ford As Navy Defends Design


The aircraft carrier Gerald R. Ford will continue to experience problems after it joins the fleet because key systems lack reliability, including those that allow fighter jets to launch and land, a government watchdog group reported Thursday.

Responding to the report, the Defense Department agreed on the need for some cost and planning reforms in the Ford program, but said the report goes too far in saying Ford will face “significant operational limitations” once commissioned. It is scheduled to be delivered to the Navy in February 2016.

While it’s true that land-based testing of key systems has been delayed, the department said the U.S. Government Accountability Office, an investigative arm of Congress, has overstated the impact of those delays.

“The ship’s design is stable,” the department said.

The GAO report cites numerous cost and technology challenges associated with the Ford-class carrier program, the centerpiece of work at Newport News Shipbuilding and, by extension, a linchpin of the local economy.

GAO cites concerns over radar systems, weapons elevators, the electromagnetic aircraft launch system and advanced arresting gear. GAO said all “will fall well short of their required reliability rates” ahead of the Ford’s initial test and evaluation faces.

The report comes a few weeks after Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel raised the prospect of mothballing three aircraft carriers as part of a larger plan to cut military spending.

The Navy plans to spend more than $43 billion to produce three Ford-class flattops. The first-in-class Gerald R. Ford is nearing completion and will be christened in November at the Huntington Ingalls Industries-owned Newport News shipyard. Preparation is already under way for the second carrier, John F. Kennedy.

GAO says the cost of the Ford, also known as CVN-78, has increased 22 percent since its construction authorization in 2008. Since then, construction has been “overshadowed by inefficient, out-of-sequence work.” This has been prompted by supply shortages, engineering challenges and delays in developing and installing key systems.

A draft report in June, reported by Bloomberg News, recommended a delay in commissioning of the Ford. However, GAO withdrew that recommendation from Thursday’s final report when the Pentagon pointed out the unintended consequences of a delay.

The final report also recommended delaying the detail design and construction award on the Kennedy, CVN-79, until the Navy completes land-based testing for key ship systems. The Defense Department disagreed in language that GAO characterized as an overreaction.

“In its comments, (the Defense Department) responded as if we had recommended a total work stoppage for CVN 79, a drastic measure inconsistent with our recommendation,” GAO says.

Newport News Shipbuilding deferred comment on the report.Shipyard officials said they have learned “valuable lessons” from working on the Ford that will be applied to construction of future Ford-class carriers.

In addition, the Navy said it “remains committed to the Ford-class aircraft carrier as a needed capability in the fleet,” said Navy Lt. Caroline Hutcheson, noting the Ford will provide 25 percent more combat capability and the ability to handle futuristic energy-directed weapons,


One example of the disagreement between GAO and the Pentagon – and reflecting the complex nature of carrier construction — concerns the new electromagnetic aircraft launch system, or EMALS. It will replace the steam catapults on the Nimitz-class carriers.

The Navy began land-based tests of EMALS in 2010. Since then, the Defense Department said it has demonstrated its reliability through thousands of launches.

“The EMALS system design is stable with low risk that future testing will discover any significant deficiencies requiring design changes that could impact ship construction,” the department said.

GAO said the launch system was “approaching maturity” prior to the design/contract award for the Ford. The Navy planned to do land-based testing between 2008 and 2011. However, progress has been slow, and testing will now continue into fiscal year 2014, which will result in EMALs being fully mature.

But in the meantime, “significant numbers of EMALS components” have already been delivered to Newport News and installed on the ship, “even though the functional requirements, performance and suitability of the system remain unproven.”

The F-35 factor

One problem GAO cites has nothing to do with the shipyard.

Ford-class carriers are designed to accommodate the F-35C Joint Strike Fighter, which has been best by development and testing delays. The Navy has done “paper-based” assessments on how to integrate fighter and carrier; actual tests have been few.

The F-35C has participated in only one test with the new EMALs system, and before deploying on the Ford and heading to combat, it will need to complete 80-100 such launches.

Because of delays in the fighter program, the Navy will not debut the aircraft until at least 2017, one year after the Ford has joined the fleet. That “introduces the risk of system incompatibilities and costly retrofits to the ship after it is delivered to the Navy,” GAO says.

The shipyard says . . .

Given the report was just released a few hours ago, we haven’t yet had the opportunity to review it in its entirety and in detail. That being said, we are intensely focused on driving down the costs of the John F. Kennedy and future Ford-class aircraft carriers. We are applying the valuable lessons we are learning in building Gerald R. Ford – the lead ship of the class — to improve construction of the Kennedy, a process that will be used from ship to ship going forward to maximize affordability. The mature and stable design will allow for improved material availability, and we are working with the Navy and our suppliers to identify ideas that would make future carriers more affordable. We are also examining our processes to identify opportunities to increase productivity, such as maximizing work in earlier stages of construction, building similar units repetitively, and decreasing the number of lifts required to erect the ship.

Five years between ships give us and the Navy the time necessary to apply the lessons we are learning from CVN 78.

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