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New carrier USS Gerald R. Ford may not deploy for another 2 years

The USS Gerald R. Ford breaks the threshold of Newport News Shipyard Dry Dock 12 into the James River during the ship's launch and transit to Newport News Shipyard pier three for the final stages of construction and testing. Ford was christened Nov. 9, 2013.

AIDAN P. CAMPBELL/U.S. NAVY

By BILL BARTEL | The (Norfolk) Virginian-Pilot (MCT) | Published: September 11, 2015

(Tribune News Service) — The Navy's newest and most expensive aircraft carrier, the USS Gerald R. Ford, is expected to be delivered in early 2016, but it may not deploy for two years, a senior Navy officer said Thursday.

The delay is caused by orders last month from the Pentagon that the $13 billion ship undergo shock tests before it can be approved for active duty, Rear Adm. Jeffrey Harley, assistant deputy chief of naval operations, told a House subcommittee in Washington.

The tests involve setting off live explosives near the vessel to assure its equipment and systems can withstand the blasts.

The Ford's delay "does have a significant impact" on the Navy's desire to return to an 11-carrier fleet, Hailey told the readiness subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee.

The Navy, which has operated with 10 carriers since December 2012 when the Enterprise was retired, has said the return of the 11th flattop gives it the force strength needed to adopt a steady rotation with deployments of reasonable length.

The goal has been to have two carriers deployed with three others ready to "surge" should they be needed. Other carriers would be at various stages of preparation or repair.

The Ford delay "does modify our ability to restore our plus-three surge capacity by a designated period of time that is still under review by Fleet Forces Command," he said.

Hailey said Navy officials are looking for ways to adjust their operations "to get back to the two-carrier deployed and three capable."

After the hearing, Capt. Thom Burke, director of fleet readiness, told the independent U.S. Naval Institute News that the length of the Ford's delay would depend on the test results.

"A shock trial is an uncertain event. What's going to break when you do it?" Burke told USNI News. "Why do you do a shock trial? You do it because it's a brand new class of ship. If it goes to design, then nothing breaks, and you don't have that two years. But if a lot of things end up needing to be repaired then it's going to be longer. So it's pretty uncertain; it's a big window."

The carrier's deployment delay won't cause a backup on any other carrier projects at Newport News Shipbuilding because the Navy will have taken the ship from the yard by early 2016, said Christie Miller, a company spokeswoman. The shipyard, the nation's sole carrier manufacturer, has already begun work on the next Ford-class carrier, the John F. Kennedy, which is due to be delivered in 2022.

The Ford delay comes at a time when the Navy has been feeling the pressure of a smaller carrier force as it deals with longer deployments that add stress to crews and cause greater wear and tear on equipment.

The Eisenhower, for example, was to deploy this fall but is spending more time at Norfolk Naval Shipyard in Portsmouth to complete badly needed maintenance following back-to-back deployments in the Persian Gulf.

What was to be just over a year in the shipyard has turned into almost two years after workers discovered more components in need of repair or replacement than first thought. The Eisenhower returned to Norfolk Naval Station this month but won't be deployed until next year.

To compensate, the Navy has deployed the Harry S. Truman in place of the Eisenhower this fall.

But that has meant giving the Truman an abbreviated maintenance period and an accelerated predeployment workup schedule. With the shipyard preoccupied with the Truman, the carrier George H.W. Bush had to delay its entry into the shipyard.

The Bush will have less time than normal to get ready for its next deployment - as will the Eisenhower as it prepares to ship out next summer.

©2015 The (Norfolk) Virginian-Pilot. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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