Navy official upbeat about Ford-class carriers despite delays, struggles

USS Gerald R. Ford steams in the Atlantic Ocean on Oct. 27, 2019, for the first time since July 2018. Ford is conducting sea trials following its 15 month post-shakedown availability.


By HUGH LESSIG | Daily Press (Newport News, Va.) | Published: October 29, 2019

NEWPORT NEWS, Va. (Tribune News Service) — The aircraft carrier Gerald R. Ford has passed the halfway point of sea trials, running at full throttle and tracking simulated targets in exercises somewhere in the Atlantic.

The future USS John F. Kennedy will hit the water Tuesday. Newport News Shipbuilding will flood the dry dock where the carrier rests, bringing the second Ford-class ship afloat for the first time. Its christening is set for Dec. 7.

This is all good news to James Geurts, the Navy’s acquisition chief, who told reporters Monday that he remains upbeat about Ford-class carriers despite delays and a history of struggles with new technology.

“There’s lots of things we’re going to keep tracking, but there’s not anything that’s keeping me up at night,” said Geurts, assistant secretary of the Navy for research, development and acquisition.

The first-in-class Ford left the Newport News shipyard Friday after spending 15 months undergoing repairs and upgrades. That was three months longer than expected, one reason being problems with its weapons elevators. The Navy still hasn’t cracked the code, although four of the 11 elevators are certified and progress is being reported on others.

Navy Secretary Richard Spencer has expressed his frustration with shipyard senior leaders about the elevators, saying the company didn’t adequately inform the Navy about the problems.

Geurts, who joined Spencer in visiting the Ford on Monday, deferred questions regarding the shipyard. He praised the progress made during the past three months as the Ford prepared to leave Newport News.

“While there is some frustration at our speed to get around this problem initially, my focus is, ‘How do I take the great pride, spirit, hunger, teamwork, I saw out on that ship — and in the last 90 days — and make that the way we do all business?’ ”

The Ford is scheduled to be at sea until about midweek, Geurts said. It will return to Naval Station Norfolk and will begin a new series of workups. The Navy isn’t saying when it will be combat-ready, but Spencer said Monday it would reach that point well before 2024, a date floated in a congressional hearing last week.

Geurts pledged to allow journalists to embark on the Ford during future at-sea trips as it prepares for its first deployment.

“I encourage you to talk to sailors up on the deck,” he said.

Commissioned in 2017, the Ford is packed with new technology. That speaks to its potential, and to its struggles. Problems have arisen in critical systems, including the electromagnetic catapults (EMALS) and advanced arresting gear (AAG), designed to allow aircraft to take off and land safely on the flight deck.

Geurts said he feels good about both AAG and EMALS on Ford. Starting in 2020, the ship will start flight operations, accumulating hundreds of launches and landings.

Meanwhile, the Navy has awarded a two-carrier contract to HII-Newport News, representing the third and fourth Ford Class ships. The third will be the new USS Enterprise. The fourth doesn’t have a name.

“Pretty soon, you’re going to see two Ford Class carriers floating in the water and then, in the not-too-distant future, there will be three and then four,” he said.

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