As Gerald R. Ford nears delivery, two big hurdles remain

Lance M. Bacon, Staff writer

The Navy’s newest carrier is on track for its March 31, 2015, delivery. But significant hurdles remain with the ship’s catapults and its arresting gear, which will receive intensive scrutiny and testing for the remainder of the year.

Construction of the first-of-class Gerald R. Ford is 89 percent complete, Rear Adm. Thomas Moore, program executive officer carriers, told reporters March 19. Most of what remains is finish work. However, the test program is only 37.5 percent complete and, though on schedule, this will be the focus in the coming year.

Two technical issues will receive the bulk of attention. First is the electromagnetic aircraft launch system, or EMALS, which replaced the steam-powered catapult system. It is “ahead of the curve,” Moore said. Two of four catapults are built. The ship will launch dead loads (weighted sleds) into the James River in June.

And then there is the advanced arresting gear, arguably the source of most headaches during the carrier’s construction. The system could manage only 20 arrests between failures – a rate 248 times higher than should be expected, according to an April 2014 Congressional Research Service report. This led to a major redesign of the water-twister, which absorbs about 70 percent of the energy during a landing.

Testing of the upgraded AAG will continue in Lakehurst, New Jersey, even as the system is installed on the carrier. That means more fixes could be required after installation — a situation Moore described as “not optimal,” but a risk that builders have to accept at this point because the system is about two-years behind.

The AAG will catch its first real aircraft (a Super Hornet) in October, Moore said. This will be used to generate a launch recovery bulletin, which instructs landing signal officers on how to set the catapult and arresting gear to recover every type of aircraft.

After its March delivery, “I need to get as many ‘cats and traps’ as I can” through the rest of 2016, Moore said. These launches and recoveries not only exercise the new systems, but also enable the crew to become familiar with the new flight deck design. Moving the island aft freed up 8,000 square feet of extra space. The redesigned flattop also features a series of “hot pits” where jets can quickly refuel. The “bomb farm” was moved from the flight deck to the O-2 level, and the ship’s 11 weapons elevators (magnetic rather than hydraulic) are bigger and open sideways rather than upright.

The crew’s move aboard is scheduled for August, but a commission date has not been set.

The second in the Ford class will be John F. Kennedy. Now in its fifth year of advance construction, the program is gaining momentum. The keel will be laid in September, with launch scheduled for February 2020, and delivery set for June 2022.

Kennedy will be nearly an exact replica of Ford; “lessons learned” and the availability of specially built tools and the like will cut the cost from $12.9 billion to $11.5 billion, Moore said. The main difference between the two carriers stems from the decision to ditch the dual-band radar, which Moore called “incredible” but “probably a little bit of overkill for an aircraft carrier” when Navy Times was given an exclusive tour of the ship last year.

The Navy planned to leverage its dual-band radar buying power off the now-canceled DDG-1000 program. The switch is expected to save hundreds of millions per ship. No decision has been made on retrofitting Ford with the common radar its follow-on carriers will receive.

Ford has done away with nearly all of the hydraulics typically associated with carriers, the exception being its aircraft elevators. Kennedy will make that switch and use electric elevators. Electrical output of the Ford class is three times that of the Nimitz class, which is bumping up against the limits of usable electrical power. This not only allows an end to messy hydraulic systems, but provides a significant growth margin for things such as directed energy or laser weapons.

The new Enterprise will follow John F. Kennedy. Advance procurement, in which the Navy will buy the propulsion plant and long-lead material, is set to start in fiscal 2016. A construction contract will be signed in fiscal 2018. A new carrier will be contracted every five years from that point.

Moore advocates a two-ship buy — or at least a two-ship buy of material — when Enterprise and its follow-on are contracted.

That decision is in the hands of Congress. But buying in bulk drives down costs, Moore said. He pointed to the construction of Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyers and the Virginia-class submarines, and noted that the approach is not new to carriers. The Abraham Lincoln and George Washington were part of a two-ship buy, as were the John C. Stennis and Harry S. Truman.

“Not surprisingly, those were the four ships we built with the lowest number of [man] hours and the lowest cost,” Moore said.

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