Navy jets with extra fuel can’t be launched off new US carrier

The USS Gerald R. Ford is christened during a ceremony Nov. 9, 2013, at Huntington-Ingalls Industries' Newport News shipyard in Virginia. The Gerald Ford is the 1st of a new class of aircraft carrier intended to replace Nimitz-class carriers.


By TONY CAPACCIO | Bloomberg News | Published: March 26, 2015

WASHINGTON (Tribune News Service) — The U.S. Navy’s top warplanes can’t be launched off its newest aircraft carrier if they’re carrying fuel tanks needed to extend their flight range, because the ship’s high-tech catapults cause too much wear.

Military weapons testers view this as a deficiency that would “preclude the Navy from conducting normal operations” on the USS Gerald R. Ford until it’s corrected, said Air Force Major Eric Badger, spokesman for the Pentagon’s testing office, in an email.

The previously undisclosed troubles with the catapult system from San Diego-based General Atomics add to shortcomings for the first in a new class of aircraft carriers being built by Newport News, Va.-based Huntington Ingalls Industries Inc.

Flaws in the ship’s landing system also are being fixed, and the U.S. Government Accountability Office has said other needed improvements are being deferred until after the ship’s scheduled delivery in March 2016 to stay within a $12.9 billion cap on construction costs imposed by Congress. That’s 22 percent more than estimated five years ago.

The 480-gallon tanks for extended flights are carried under the wings of two models of the F/A-18, the Super Hornet fighter and the Growler jamming aircraft. The carrier’s electromagnetic launch system, made by General Atomics, puts more stress on the tanks than older steam-powered catapults, and that would cause premature damage to the planes, according to the test office and Navy documents.

The test office learned of the issue in November. Unlike a catapult powered by a steam piston drive, the General Atomics system depends on a motor using electrical currents to generate magnetic fields.

A Sept. 5 report by the Naval Air Systems Command found that “the overstress condition will eliminate the employment of external fuel tanks” that are “an essential element” of combat loads for many Super Hornets and most Growler jammer jets.

The wing tanks and the pylons they hang from are designed to withstand twisting and yanking when an aircraft is launched, but the stresses add up over time. Given the test results, the warplanes wouldn’t be able to launch with fuel tanks, Badger said.

The three-vessel Ford class is the first major new design for a carrier since the 1960s-era Nimitz class and is projected to cost $40 billion. The launch system is estimated at an additional $3.2 billion.

Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican and Senate Armed Services Committee chairman, has been a persistent Ford critic, criticizing the Navy for failing to control costs and deferring for several years a key shock test to assess the carrier’s ability to survive if hit in combat.

The Navy says it will install corrective software on the launch system intended to reduce acceleration forces and will test it on board the Ford after delivery next March. The software change is intended to adjust the power exerted during launches to reduce stress on the wing tanks.

Commander Thurraya Kent, a Navy spokeswoman, said the catapult flaw didn’t cause any launches to fail during on-ground tests at the Navy’s Lakehurst, N.J., facility.

Navy aircraft specialists “are aware of this issue and in close coordination with structural and systems engineers” who are assessing launch system “and/or aircraft-based alternatives to address the situation,” she said.

The Navy has earmarked funds to develop corrections once a solution is determined, she said.

“It’s a big deal to fix it, but the Navy thinks it can be done,” Mark Gunzinger, an air-power analyst with the nonpartisan Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington, said in an email.

Michael Gilmore, the Pentagon’s test director, warned Frank Kendall, the Defense Department’s weapons buyer, in a Feb. 23 memo that the launch system deficiency “and possible solutions could significantly limit the carrier’s” required rate for launching and recovering aircraft.

The Navy has said the new carrier promises about a 25 percent increase in launches and recovery over the current Nimitz class.

The issue won’t delay a scheduled April 8 Pentagon meeting to review awarding a potential $4 billion construction contract to Huntington Ingalls for the next carrier, the John F. Kennedy, said a defense official who asked not to be identified to discuss procurement plans.

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