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Navy secretary says learning of Ford elevator delays from shipyard was a 'gut blow'

Navy Secretary Richard Spencer, at a Senate hearing in March, 2019.

STARS AND STRIPES

By HUGH LESSIG | Daily Press (Newport News, Va.) | Published: October 28, 2019

NEWPORT NEWS, Va. (Tribune News Service) — Navy Secretary Richard Spencer said frustration regarding weapons elevators on the USS Gerald R. Ford stem from how senior leaders at Huntington Ingalls Industries communicated the problem, not the effort from employees.

Spencer spent part of Sunday at sea with the $13 billion aircraft carrier, which left HII’s Newport News shipyard Friday. The Ford is undergoing sea trials after spending 15 months at the yard for extended repairs and upgrades.

Newport News shipbuilders also are on board as the Navy tests out various systems. The advanced weapons elevators, which lift ordnance from the lower levels to the flight deck, are a pressing issue. The Ford has 11 elevators, but only four are certified.

“I want to make it perfectly clear,” Spencer told reporters after a return flight to Naval Station Norfolk. “What we saw today was the HII team on the deck working seamlessly with the Navy to knock down these problems. My issue is with senior management and the board of directors.”

The Ford, commissioned in 2017, had been scheduled to leave the shipyard in July after completing post-shakedown work. Spencer said shipyard leaders came to the Navy in March and said problems with the advanced weapons elevators would require an extended amount of time to fix.

He said the Navy didn’t have an understanding of how the shipyard viewed the problem.

“That was a bit of a gut-blow, which questioned, in my mind, do they really know what the problem is,” he said. “Navy came in and did what we should have done earlier. We took control of the situation completely as it pertains to the elevator program itself along with the rest of the ship and we got the issues knocked down.”

The shipyard’s workforce “is doing a great job,” he added.

HII spokeswoman Beci Brenton said in a statement that the yard is working closely with the Navy to resolve challenges on the Ford. Work on the elevators should be completed “in the coming months.”

“We are proud of the work that our shipbuilders have accomplished," she said in an email. “Most things have gone very well. Some of the newer technologies have been more challenging than anticipated. This is to be expected on any first-in-class ship.”

Spencer criticized the company last week while speaking at the Brookings Institution and in a later conversation with reporters. At one point, he said the shipyard told the Navy it had “no idea” what was going on with the elevators.

Then on Friday, Under Secretary of the Navy Thomas Modly said the Navy and shipyard share responsibility for getting the Ford ready for combat.

The Navy wasn’t trying to blame the company for the technological problems that have surfaced in the ship’s development, which include catapults and arresting gear.

Speaking at 2019 Military Reporters and Editors conference, Modly said the Pentagon should not have decided to pack the Ford with so many new systems, which pushed the ship behind schedule and over budget. His comments were reported by military.com.

Spencer said seven of the 11 elevators are “moving,” including the four that are certified. Another three elevators are being tested.

“We see an energized crew and an energized team, that is the main thing,” he said.

At a House Armed Services panel last week, a 2024 deployment date was mentioned as a possibility, although Navy witnesses said they expected to beat that.

Spencer said the ship will be ready “way before 2024, I can guarantee you that.”


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