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Memo: Aircraft carrier Gerald R. Ford has persistent electrical problem

The aircraft carrier Gerald R. Ford (CVN 78) sits pier side at Newport News Shipbuilding, April 9, 2014.

RICKY THOMPSON/ NEWPORT NEWS SHIPBUILDING COURTESY PHOTO

By HUGH LESSIG | Daily Press (Newport News, Va.) (Tribune News Service) | Published: September 20, 2016

Leading national experts have been called to assess a persistent electrical problem on the aircraft carrier Gerald R. Ford, and the Navy needs to work through this and other issues before the ship is delivered.

This summer, the Navy announced the Ford could be delivered as early as November, 14 months beyond the original date. However, the power-generation problem that surfaced months ago remains a concern, according to a memo from Navy Secretary Ray Mabus.

Now the Navy is not specifying a date for delivery.

Mabus said the problem "must be addressed prior to ship's delivery" and was "likely due to a manufacturing defect." The memo was first reported by Defense News, which said it wasn't clear if the problem could be traced to the component's main supplier or a sub-system manufacturer.

The goal is getting the ship to sea as soon as possible, said Capt. Thurraya Kent, a Navy spokeswoman.

"The nation's leading experts on shipboard power generation systems are working (on a) resolution of these issues with a priority on safe, reliable system performance while balancing cost and schedule considerations," the Mabus memo states.

The Gerald R. Ford, built by Newport News Shipbuilding, is the first in a new class of U.S. aircraft carriers. It is scheduled for commissioning in 2016.

The Ford is the first of a new carrier class, packed with new technology. Built by Newport News Shipbuilding, a division of Huntington Ingalls Industries, its construction is essentially complete.

However, developing, testing and integrating the new components has cost time and money. Besides being behind schedule, the ship's $12.9 billion price tag is more than 20 percent over earlier estimates.

A commemoration recognizing the 15th anniversary of 9/11 was held by the City of Newport News and local armed forces from the USS Abraham Lincoln, Aircraft Carrier Gerald R. Ford, USS Enterprise, Joint base Langley-Eustis at the Victory Arch, and Newport News Fire and Police Departments at 25th Street and West Ave., on Friday Sept. 9, 2016.

A commemoration recognizing the 15th anniversary of 9/11 was held by the City of Newport News and local armed forces from the USS Abraham Lincoln, Aircraft Carrier Gerald R. Ford, USS Enterprise, Joint base Langley-Eustis at the Victory Arch, and Newport News Fire and Police Departments at 25th Street and West Ave., on Friday Sept. 9, 2016.

The problem described by Mabus gets to the heart of Ford's capabilities: its ability to generate electricity to power the ship's systems.

His Aug. 31 memo was sent to Frank Kendall, a Defense Department undersecretary and lead weapons buyer. It responded to Kendall's plan to initiate a 60-day independent review of the Ford program, examining the electrical problem and other issues.

The Daily Press obtained a copy of the Mabus memo Monday.

Mabus said he understands the need for oversight, but he questioned the timing of Kendall's probe. Mabus pointed to "the added burden it imposes on our already fully-engaged workforce currently preparing for CVN-78 sea trials." CVN-78 is an alternate designation for the Ford.

An electrical problem surfaced on the night of June 12, when personnel detected a burning smell on the ship. It was first reported to the Daily Press as coming from an electrical cable connection. A second problem was detected some weeks later.

Kent said in an email Monday that the Ford experienced "two main turbine generator issues" during the last several months. It did not affect the ship's nuclear reactor plant.

"We are currently developing repair plans and gathering materials needed to effect in-place repairs of the MTGs (main turbine generators)," she stated. "Throughout these efforts, we continue to look for opportunities to get Gerald R. Ford to sea as soon as possible."

She added: "In addition to the propulsion plant work, the Navy continues to work on technical resolution to all shipboard testing issues and it wouldn't be prudent to discuss delivery schedule until we have resolution."

The Mabus memo addresses four other areas of concern on Ford: the electromagnetic catapult that launches aircraft from the flight deck, the advanced arresting gear that allows aircraft to land, the dual band radar systems and advanced weapons elevators.

In particular, the advanced arresting gear has attracted recent critical attention.

Earlier this year, a Department of Defense inspector general's report criticized how the Navy managed the AAG program. Then came a June memo from the Pentagon's chief weapons tester who cited several concerns about the Ford, calling AAG "the most serious limitation."

The Mabus memo acknowledged "significant delays" in land-based testing of AAG due to technical challenges. However, he said the Navy is satisfied AAG "will meet its requirements for the current air wing." Further work will be required to support future aircraft as the carrier cycles through its expected 50-year life span.

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©2016 the Daily Press (Newport News, Va.)

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