New Senate Armed Services chair needs convincing on Navy's 2-carrier purchase
By HUGH LESSIG | The Daily Press | Published: December 7, 2018
NEWPORT NEWS, Va. (Tribune News Service) — A key senator said he is concerned about lingering problems with weapons elevators on the aircraft carrier Gerald R. Ford even as the Pentagon is set to decide whether to fast-track purchases of the new aircraft carriers.
Sen. James Inhofe said he’s not yet opposed to purchasing two carriers at once from Huntington Ingalls Industries.
However, he has spoken to Defense Secretary James Mattis about his concerns. The 2019 defense authorization bill puts the decision on a two-carrier purchase in Mattis’ hands.
Supporters say the bulk buy will create economies of scale and save at least $2.5 billion. It would also shore up smaller defense contractors that supply HII’s Newport News Shipbuilding division with parts and services.
The Newport News yard is the sole manufacturer of nuclear-powered aircraft carriers for the Navy.
Inhofe, a Republican from Oklahoma, is succeeding the late John McCain as chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. His assessment on a proposed two-carrier buy came after a visit to HII’s Newport News shipyard Dec. 3.
His visit and subsequent comments were first reported by Bloomberg.
The new weapons elevators are designed to move bombs faster from lower decks up to the flight deck. That will increase the number of sorties aircraft can fly and contribute to the ship’s overall punch in combat.
Inhofe said he would continue to track progress on the elevators.
“Until these elevators work, we only have 10 operational aircraft carriers despite a requirement for 12,” he said in the email.
A recent Bloomberg story highlighted problems with the 11 elevators, including four instances of "uncommanded movements" since 2015.
At a Nov. 27 Senate hearing, Sen. Tim Kaine said the elevator problems seemed similar in scope to earlier challenges on the launch and arresting systems that prompted the Navy to assemble independent review teams.
Kaine wondered if a similar team was needed to sort through the weapons elevator problems.
James F. Geurts, the Navy’s chief weapons buyer, said he would likely put together a team to look at the weapons elevator program in the long term, but not specifically to examine the 11 elevators on the Ford, where he said the Navy and shipbuilder are making progress.
The Ford entered the Newport News shipyard in July for post-shakedown work that is expected to last about a year.
At that same hearing, Geurts said he expected a decision on a two-carrier purchase by year’s end. Such a move would affect the future USS Enterprise, a third Ford-class ship now undergoing advance work at Newport News, and a fourth ship.
Geurts said the savings would exceed the $2.5 billion he had quoted earlier.
A worthwhile meeting
Beci Brenton, an HII spokeswoman, said in an email company officials had “a very productive meeting” with Inhofe that included a tour of the Ford.
She acknowledged that completion had been delayed “due to a number of first-in-class issues associated with the first-time installation, integration and test of this new technology.”
“In retrospect, building a fully functioning shore-based prototype would have identified (and resolved) these technical issues much sooner,” she said. “The challenges associated with installing first-of-a-kind advanced weapons elevators aboard the ship are being met and overcome.”
She said shipbuilders and the Navy “are on track to complete construction and test of all the weapons elevators by the end of the post-shakedown availability period.”
Capt. Danny Hernandez, a Navy spokesman, confirmed that installation and testing should be completed July 2019. More work will need to be done on certifying five of 11 elevators.
“A dedicated team is engaged on these efforts and will accelerate this certification work and schedule where feasible,” Hernandez said.
Wittman supports bulk purchase
Rep. Rob Wittman, R-Westmoreland, has exercised influence over the Navy’s shipbuilding budget as chairman of the House Armed Services sea power panel.
He’ll relinquish that position with the Democratic takeover of Congress, but has talked extensively with Navy officials about a two-carrier deal.
“I think it’s very close to happening,” he said. “I think it’s just a matter of finalizing the numbers and how this would be executed.”
Wittman says the Navy is working through its problems on Ford, and those risks will diminish as Newport News churns out more ships.
The Navy hasn’t purchased two carriers at once since the defense building during the Reagan administration, but Wittman said the Ford program could pave the way for bulk purchases of other ships, such as large-deck amphibious assault ships, which are built at HII’s Ingalls Shipbuilding division in Pascagoula, Miss.