Years late and billions more: The USS Gerald R. Ford is a lesson in how the Navy builds ships
Daily Press May 23, 2021
(Tribune News Service) — For the past 1½ years, on 18 trips off the Virginia and North Carolina coasts, sailors and shipyard workers from Newport News have prepped the Navy’s newest carrier for deployment — 27% over its original budget and years behind schedule.
The costliest single item on the Department of Defense’s shopping list, the USS Gerald R Ford has been on a fast track to launch a series of new technologies intended to boost the Navy’s striking power for at least the next 50 years.
It is a fast track that started two decades ago and has seen delays installing key components of the ship, as on-shore testing revealed unexpected problems that required hundreds of millions of dollars to fix and that forced workers at Newport News Shipbuilding to redo finished parts of the 1,092-foot long carrier, hundreds of pages of government budget documents, Navy assessments, oversight reports and Congressional hearings show.
The Ford’s long path toward a first deployment, now slated for next year, has sparked years of criticism about the way the Navy acquires ships — and how it sells the need for multi-billion dollar budgets to Congress. The Navy told Congress in 2007 it would cost $10.49 billion. It actually cost $13.316 billion.
The cost, along with the explosive growth of drones over the two decades it was conceptualized, designed, built and commissioned, has rekindled decades-old questions about the need for all the big carriers the Navy operates.
Two decades ago
The Navy started spending on the Ford in 2001, with preparation of the plans and other work costing $21 million.
At the time, the Navy was aiming for a multi-step process to introduce all the features its carrier working group proposed for its next generation carrier — a new nuclear plant, new kinds of catapults and arresting gear to increase the number of sorties the air wing could fly, a new layout of the flight deck, new radar, new anti-aircraft and missile defense weapons and a new way of arming and moving weapons from magazines.
The plan was to begin introducing some with the Nimitz-class carrier that would eventually be the USS George H.W. Bush, which would be commissioned in 2009. There’d be more on the first ship of the new class — the one that would be the Ford — with everything up and running on the second, the John F. Kennedy, now under construction and 81% complete.
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, a former Naval aviator, didn’t like the idea. The $10 billion price tag for the first, transitional carrier, he decided, didn’t buy enough of a warfighting edge over the $4 billion Nimitz-class Ronald Reagan, then under construction.
But he didn’t like the idea of waiting. That meant simply building another Nimitz class carrier, by then a four-decade old design, instead of the first of the new class. That plan called for the new class of carrier with its new technologies to be started toward the end of the decade. That later carrier — the one that would become the John F. Kennedy — would have all of the new technology.
When the Navy agreed to speed work on the features it had thought to save for the second ship of the new class, and install them on the first, Rumsfeld had exactly the kind of “transformational” ship for which he’d hoped.
The pace quickens
The pace of spending to build the Ford soon picked up: $135 million in fiscal year 2002, $395 million in 2003, $1.16 billion in 2004, when the Navy paid General Electric $928 million, on top of some $410 million already spent, for the nuclear reactor.
By end of 2007, the shipyard’s design work and plans had cost the Navy $1.49 billion.
But the planning and design work wasn’t done, two years after the yard began cutting steel for the ship. The Navy’s first cost estimates for the Ford pegged total planning at $2.35 billion.
Payments to the yard for some of the propulsion and electrical system work had reached $645 million by that point, and the Navy projected total construction costs would be $4.73 billion. That figure excluded $1.52 billion for the nuclear power system, an estimated $697 million for ordnance — everything from the new Close-in Weapons System Mounts, the computer- and radar-linked multiple-barrel cannon that can fire 4,500 rounds a minute, to the new electromagnetic catapult and arresting gear systems and the new dual band radar.
All of these costs, except the nuclear power system, would rise sharply. The new radar’s cost would be 138% above the Navy’s 2008 forecast. The new arresting gear, 123% costlier. The new catapult, 111%.
These costs rose by more than $720 million by the time the Ford was formally delivered to the Navy, though work on the ship continued.
The reworking of designs, changes in construction schedules and need to break down and rebuild already completed parts of the Ford to accommodate changes in these systems had knock-on effects.
Planning costs had climbed 42%, or by $980 million, from the Navy’s fiscal year 2008 projection.
Basic construction costs were 29% higher, by $1.36 billion.
The first warning that costs would rise came in 2007, six months after the Pentagon asked for the first big chunk of funds for the Ford, telling Congress in its budget filing for the following fiscal year that building and equipping the Ford would cost just under $10.49 billion.
“The Navy’s cost estimate, which underpins the budget, is optimistic. … The Navy assumes that CVN 78 will be built with fewer labor hours than were needed for the previous two carriers,” the Government Accountability Office concluded.
The Navy’s $10.49 billion acquisition cost — a figure that did not include the $3 billion already spent from its research budget, a separate account from its construction and equipment fund — assumed it would require 42.7 million man-hours to build the Ford, well below the 43.1 million expected for the USS George H.W. Bush, then under construction at the shipyard, or the 45 million needed to build the USS Ronald Reagan by the time it was commissioned in 2003.
On top of that, GAO said “the shipbuilder’s initial cost estimate for construction was 22 percent higher than the Navy’s cost target.”
At the shipyard’s suggestion, to hold costs down, the Navy dropped a dynamic armor protection system. The yard also suggested eliminating one of the waste disposal systems from the ship and said it planned to start cutting holes in steel plates earlier, during fabrication, to cut labor hours needed for welding and pulling cable.
But the GAO said despite the yard’s efforts to meet Navy targets for the Reagan and Bush, “in both cases, costs grew not only above the negotiated contract price, but above the original estimate of the shipbuilder as well.”
The catapult and arresting gear, built by General Atomics, had to be installed by 2011 to keep construction on track. If the catapult wasn’t ready, they would have to wait to complete 48 of the 423 basic construction units (called “design zones”) on the carrier, all of them above the main deck and on the flight deck. If the arresting gear wasn’t finished, it would hold up 18 design units above the main deck.
The dual band radar, from Raytheon Inc., needed to be delivered by 2010 to keep work on nine design zones in the carrier’s island superstructure on schedule.
And the 11 electromagnetic weapons elevators, the heart of a new, safer system for arming weapons from the magazine deep in the ship’s hull, needed to be ready by 2010. If not, 68 zones on every deck would be affected.
But the catapult already was more than 15 months behind schedule by 2007 and costs were running substantially above budget.
The generator needed to store the high level of electric power needed to propel the launcher had failed, and on top of the redesign needed to fix that, General Atomics also had to reconfigure the system to meet the Navy’s specifications. The power conversion system had to be redone to meet the Navy’s vibration and shock requirements, once they were set, while General Atomics, which had not previously worked on shipboard systems, complained about a lack of coordination with the ship and lagging communications by the Navy.
And after the design was set, concern that the electromagnets could cause interference with the Ford’s electronic systems emerged.
The Navy awarded Newport News Shipbuilding the major, $4.9 billion contract for construction of the Ford in September 2008.
At the time, the shipyard had completed a quarter of the modules from which the carrier would be built. But the 3-D computer model of the carrier — a basic plan needed for its construction — wasn’t completed until more than a year later.
And while General Atomics had by then completed the first round of testing aimed at seeing how well the catapult could handle the rapid pace of launching planes, land-based testing was already running two years late.
In its February 2010 request for funding, the Navy boosted the estimated cost of the Ford by more than $1 billion, to $11.53 billion. The Navy cited the rate of inflation as well as nonrecurring engineering costs.
A year and a half later, in July 2011, the Navy modified Newport News Shipbuilding’s construction contract, adding $504 million to cover continuing engineering work.
Delays and rising costs
The Navy kept saying the Ford was on target for delivery in 2015, even as its next budget submission, in February 2012, projected the Ford would cost $790 million more than the estimate it made just two years earlier, bringing the total to $12.32 billion.
“We are right now about 40% complete construction of the CVN 78. And we’re running into some very difficult cost growth issues across the full span — design, material procurement, and production,” Sean Stackley, Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Research, Development, and Acquisition, told a House Seapower subcommittee hearing in March 2012.
Much of the problem came with what Stackley called “front-end issues” — design, planning and shipping material to the yard.
Testing delays and a redesign of its “water twister” shock absorber, which used water moving through a kind of turbine to absorb the sharp, sudden strain of a plane coming to a dead stop from speeds of more than 100 knots, meant the arresting gear would be delivered late to the shipyard, a Naval Air Systems Command spokesman said at the time.
But that wouldn’t delay delivery of the Ford, he said.
By that point, the cost of the arresting gear had more than doubled, from an original estimate of $75 million to just under $167 million, Navy budget documents show. In the end, the final cost was $149 million.
The electromagnetic catapult system cost had climbed from $318 million to $425 million, the budget records show. And this system, which was supposed to be delivered to the shipyard by 2011, ran into technical problems, the GAO would report. In the end, the system cost $664 million.
And while the Navy’s revised development schedule called for land-based testing to continue into 2014, years behind its original plan, “significant numbers of EMALS components have already been produced, delivered to the shipbuilder, and installed on CVN 78 — even though the functional requirements, performance, and suitability of the system remain unproven,” GAO said.
But it wouldn’t be until the spring of 2013 that the Navy finally said the Ford wouldn’t be launched as scheduled, with that critical milestone to come four months late, in November.
Shipyard spokeswoman Beci Brenton said the delay meant cost savings for the Navy, since it meant more time for work that was easier to do in the dry dock.
A first delayed deadline
By the spring of 2013, construction of the Ford was a little more than halfway completed, GAO review found.
The delivery date had been pushed back again, to February 2016, and even so, “the Navy and shipbuilder must still overcome significant technology development, design, and construction challenges in order to deliver a fully functional ship to the fleet” by then, GAO said.
The budgeted cost of $12.8 billion was up, too — another $500 million above the increase the Navy estimated a bit more than a year earlier. In addition to inflation the Navy cited nonrecurring design and engineering costs and changes to fix problems that could affect safety.
Increased labor, material and design costs at the shipyard were offset by a cut in the shipyard’s fee. But cost increases in government-furnished equipment also boosted overall costs, the Navy said.
While the Ford’s baseline design included several features needed to handle the F-35 fighters the Navy started flying in 2019, the GAO said changes still under development, eight years after the first cut of steel for the ship, included jet-blast deflectors, handling and stowage facilities and lithium-ion battery handling gear. Those changes now are slated for completion in time for the arrival of the first F-35Cs to the Ford in 2025.
The first test of the radar system configured for the Ford wouldn’t start until 2016, and the Navy expected the system wouldn’t be fully developed until 2017. The system, originally expected to cost $202 million, ended up with a price tag of $486 million.
The Navy said it didn’t expect to complete land-based testing until 2015 — 2½ years later than planned. At the shipyard, that meant that instead of building a module to house the arresting gear engines and related equipment, shipbuilders would have to cut a hole in the flight deck in order to install components.
Still more delays
The shipyard had completed work on only 73% of the 777 compartments scheduled to be completed by August 2014, the GAO said. The main reason was late delivery of the electromagnetic catapult and arresting gear, with more than 50 modifications still to be completed before shipboard testing could begin.
While shipboard testing of components to the advanced weapons elevators began in February 2012, testing hadn’t proceeded as planned because of faulty components, software problems and premature corrosion of electrical parts. By the summer of 2014, the shipyard had operated only four of the ship’s 11 weapons elevators.
Meanwhile, the Navy was deferring some work until after ship delivery, GAO reported.
Doing that opened a new way to handle costs that were set to rise — again — over Congress’ spending cap for the carrier. Now they could cover those costs through a separate post-delivery operating and outfitting account rather than from the ship construction budget.
Delays continued as land-based testing of the catapult, arresting gear and radar had to be completed before they could be installed, Paul L. Francis, the GAO’s managing director overseeing its work on government procurement told the Senate Armed Services Committee in an October 2015 hearing.
By that point, the catapult’s testing was still underway and would not be finished until early 2016 — seven years late and around the time the Ford was supposed to be delivered under the new deadline.
The Navy’s latest estimate for the labor needed to finish the Ford — 49.9 million hours, up 17% from its promise to Congress in 2007 — was predictable, Francis said, noting that the original estimate was 2 million hours less than the shipyard itself said would be needed.
While the Navy said the Ford could be delivered, complete, by 2015 at a cost of $10.5 billion, the latest estimate was that 367 compartments would not be finished on delivery. Instead of being able to conduct full flight operations in 2015, the Ford was only due to start flight operations with one fixed wing plane four months after an again-delayed 2016 delivery date.
The end in sight?
In February 2016, an assistant secretary of the Navy told a House subcommittee that construction of the Ford was in its final stages: 96% complete, with 80% of testing of the hull and the carrier’s mechanical and electrical systems completed. Some 63% of electronics systems testing was done as well.
This put the ship on track for delivery in August or September 2016 — another delay.
There’d be a full ship shock trial — basically, setting off high explosives near the ship to see how it could weather that challenge, the first such test of a carrier since 1987 — by 2019, with the first deployment planned by 2021.
Five months later, a transformer in one of the main turbine generators in CVN 78′s propulsion plant experienced a catastrophic failure.
While an initial review by the shipyard and the firm that supplied the transformer blamed a manufacturing defect, a follow-up found other problems. All required design changes and more time to implement them.
In August 2016, testing of the dual band radar system uncovered problems. That, too, required fixes.
It would not be until May 2017 that the Ford would be delivered.
The shock test Stackley said would be done in 2019 won’t happen until later this summer. The Ford won’t be ready to deploy until 2022 at the earliest.
Commissioned — and unfinished
On a sweltering July day in 2017, President Donald Trump’s helicopter landed on the flight deck of the Ford, still at a shipyard outfitting pier, to place the carrier into commission.
The ship was two years late and four of its critical systems — the catapult, arresting gear, radar and weapons’ elevators — weren’t yet running the way they should. There were more than 9,000 items to be completed or fixed.
Even after another year and half of work, the Department of Defense Director — Operational Test and Evaluation said reliability of the catapult and arresting gear was poor.
During the first 747 launches, the catapult suffered 10 critical failures, well below the Navy’s requirement. The arresting gear failed 10 times out of 763 landings, while the Navy demanded an average of 16,500 problem-free recoveries.
The radar kept sending signals of false or doubled-up targets. Certification testing had started on only two of the carrier’s 11 weapons elevators, the first-of-their-kind electromagnet hoists that brought bombs and armament from the Ford’s magazines to the flight deck, to be loaded onto aircraft.
Ford had to cut short its first three shakedown trips at sea because of problems with the propulsion system.
Back to the shipyard in July 2018 for what originally was scheduled to be a year to fix problems found during sea trials, the Navy slated an extra three months — until October 2019 — because there was so much work to be done.
The Navy pushed back the target date for the Ford’s first deployment to 2023, then to 2024.
The Maginot Line
Since late 2019, during 18 exercises at sea, the Ford’s crew along with scores of Newport News Shipbuilding workers have worked out kinks in the key systems and have made up for some of the slippage. Almost all the key systems are certified as ready for use, with only the final two weapons elevators left to certify.
With more than 8,000 problem-free launches and landings under its belt — a key milestone, since that’s roughly the number on a typical deployment — the Ford’s crew proved the reliability of the catapult and arresting gear, said Capt. Joshua Sager, air wing commander.
Sager said the new electromagnetic technology means the air-wing can get into the air — and return to the battle after rearming and refueling — faster than with the traditional steam-and-hydraulics systems that have been the mainstay for decades.
“Now we’ve gone past the point of showing the Ford can do what Nimitz class can do. … Now we’re at the point of taking it to the next level,” he said.
Last May, the Ford’s electronic catapult launched 165 planes in a single 10-hour period; in December 2020, it did 170 in 8.5 hours, well above its target of 160 in 12 hours, a one-third improvement over Nimitz class standard.
Rear Adm. James P. Downey, program executive officer for aircraft carriers, said the Ford is now hitting the Navy’s planned performance goals for the new design.
Over the past 18 months of post-delivery tests and trial, “we really started stressing the ship’s 23 new technologies, especially EMALS (the electromagnetic catapult) and AAG (advanced arresting gear),” he said.
“In 18 months, we corrected 99% of the 9,000-plus work items outstanding at ship’s delivery,” Downey said.
Pushing ahead with undeveloped technology was a constant theme in GAO reviews, while agency officials also felt that what Francis called “a symbiotic relationship” between the yard and Navy left the Pentagon with a limited ability to negotiate favorable contract terms.
Wertheim, however, said it was the yard that couldn’t walk away.
“The leadership said it wanted (something) transformational and the shipyard knew it had to do what they wanted,” he said.
Matthew Collete, a University of Michigan professor of naval architecture and marine engineering, said the Ford shows how difficult it can be to find the right balance between the technology that promises a strategic edge for many years to come and the many years it takes to build a major warship.
“The Ford has a series of major improvements, and maybe they didn’t all need to be made at once, but many of them depend on the others,” he said.
The Navy couldn’t have the electromagnetic catapult, for instance, without the new reactors.
The way carriers are built means late delivery of parts and components, or a need for later modification, can be a challenge. Carriers are built much like the way children put Lego blocks together, except that the modules that are assembled to make a warship are complex, complete units, each containing all its necessary mechanical and electrical systems.
“I sometimes think GAO is in a kind of dream land where you can fully test everything,’ he said.
The problem is that “shipbuilding is highly skilled, there aren’t a lot of people who can do it … but if you’re waiting for eight years to fully de-risk technology, there won’t be people around to build your carrier.
“We see this a lot on the Gulf Coast after a hurricane. Shipyards lose workers to other construction trades.”
Maintaining a workforce that can build carriers, submarines and other warships is a but part of the Navy planners’ management challenge, he said.
“The balance between testing new technology, maintaining the industrial base and being a good steward of the taxpayers’ money is a difficult one.”
But it does take balance, and that was what was missing, Wertheim said.
And the reason for that, he thinks, might be found in an infamous piece of military technology: a line of fortresses on the border between France and Nazi Germany.
“Who wants to be the one who invested in the Maginot Line?”
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