Faulty bomb elevators make for rough going in aircraft carrier deal

The aircraft carrier USS Gerald R. Ford steams in the Atlantic Ocean.


By TONY CAPACCIO | Bloomberg | Published: December 5, 2018

The new head of the Senate Armed Services panel says he's leery of backing the Pentagon's plan to buy two aircraft carriers in one contract so long as contractor Huntington Ingalls Industries is struggling to fix the elevators needed to lift bombs from below deck.

"I think the case for two right now is weaker because of the lack of success in getting everything working" on the USS Gerald R. Ford, the first vessel in the new class of carriers, Sen. James Inhofe said in an interview. The Oklahoma Republican spoke after joining Navy officials in a visit Monday to the Huntington Ingalls shipyard in Newport News, Virginia.

Inhofe recalled that his last such visit was in 2015, when the Navy said that the $13 billion Ford was on the cusp of delivery. It was delivered in May 2017, but the contractor hasn't completed installing, testing and certifying its 11 munitions elevators.

Navy Secretary Richard Spencer told reporters in August that the elevators are "our open Achilles Heel."

The Navy plans to complete installation and testing of the 11 elevators before the Ford completes its post-delivery shakedown phase in July, Capt. Danny Hernandez, a Navy spokesman, said in an email. Six will also be certified for use by then, but five won't be completed until after July, he said. "A dedicated team is engaged on these efforts and will accelerate this certification work and schedule where feasible," he said.

Huntington spokeswoman Beci Brenton said via email that company officials had a "very productive meeting" with Inhofe that included both the elevators and benefits of a two-carrier contract.

The elevator's completion "has been delayed due to a number of first-in-class issues associated with the first-time installation, integration and test of this new technology," she said. "However, we are making substantial substantial progress in resolving the remaining technical challenges."

Even as the Ford's tardy elevator installations are underway, the Navy is working with Huntington Ingalls to determine by the end of this month an estimate of potential savings from putting the third and fourth aircraft carriers in the class on a single contract. The second carrier, the USS John F. Kennedy, is already under construction.

The Navy has said savings on a two-for-one carrier contract could exceed $2.5 billion. A two-carrier contract would be a financial boon to Huntington Ingalls, the nation's sole maker of nuclear aircraft carriers. Brenton, the Huntington Ingalls spokeswoman, said such a move would allow the company to "buy materials in quantity and phase work more efficiently," while delaying the decision would "further weaken a fragile industrial base."

"I'm not opposed to it at this point," Inhofe said in the interview on Monday. "We have a need for two carriers — that work," adding, "If this were a first delay I wouldn't be as concerned."

The carriers may prove a test case for how aggressively Inhofe will pursue oversight of major defense programs, a trademark of his predecessor, the late Sen. John McCain.

Congress gave the Navy authority in this year's defense policy bill to pursue the two-carrier contract pending approval by Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. This gives lawmakers like Inhofe less leverage to slow a deal.

But Inhofe said he'll be conferring closely with Mattis and convey his concerns. "He is also one we can talk to," he said. "I'm always done very well dealing with Mattis."

During the shipyard visit, Inhofe said, "they spent most of their time down there telling me what a great thing" the carrier is "and I'm sure it is." The $58 billion Ford carrier class is designed with major changes over the current Nimitz-class carriers, such as a catapult system that's electromagnetic rather than steam-driven. But the new technology has had major reliability flaws.

In a Thanksgiving call to U.S. service members overseas, President Donald Trump brought up his frequent complaint about the new system. "Steam is very reliable, and the electromagnetic — I mean unfortunately, you have to be Albert Einstein to really work it properly," he said.

Navy officials told Inhofe the launch system has been fixed, citing more than 700 successful launches. "All that's great and good," Inhofe said. "But still, the elevators still don't work."

So "I feel a little uncomfortable saying, 'Let's go ahead and let's get two and everything is going to be fine,'" he said.

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman James Inhofe, R-Okla., seen here at a hearing in November, says "we have a need for two carriers — that work."