Troubled, wonky: The most expensive US aircraft carrier ever built looks to shed these labels for good
By HUGH LESSIG | Daily Press (Newport News, Va.) | Published: January 13, 2020
NEWPORT NEWS, Va. (Tribune News Service) — The Navy has mounted an all-out push to move the aircraft carrier Gerald R. Ford toward deployment and leave a long history of technical problems in its wake.
In December, Acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly ordered the crew of the $12.9 billion warship to meet a series of deadlines starting in spring. On Thursday, he summoned 40 representatives of government and industry to a meeting dubbed the “Make Ford Ready” summit.
Bottom line: America’s most expensive warship won’t deploy in 2020, but it should be a very busy year.
“I’m extremely bullish on Ford,” Modly said in a post-summit statement, “and our Navy should be, too.”
What the acting secretary described as an “all hands on deck” approach comes after years of delays, cost overruns and technical problems on key systems. The ship was originally scheduled for delivery in September 2015. It was commissioned into service in July 2017. Even if Mobly’s new deadlines hold, the Ford won’t be certified to deploy until late 2021.
Currently, the ship is about two months into an 18-month test-and-trial period.
The new deadlines, in March and June, will target the ship’s flight deck, ensuring that two new and troubled systems can safely launch and recover aircraft. By September, two lower-stage weapons elevators must be completed. Weapons elevators transport ordnance up to the flight deck, and their performance has been a sore spot going back to last year.
The remaining elevators and combat system testing should be complete by mid-2021 before shock trials, where live explosives are detonated near the ship. This could easily result in more repairs and a change in timeline.
The Modly memo also directs Rear Adm. Jim Downey, the top officer for aircraft carrier programs, to “establish a permanent presence in Norfolk to ensure that these efforts proceed expeditiously.”
Downey, who is no stranger to Hampton Roads, is equally optimistic.
“We’re at a point, right now, in the ship’s early life where momentum is fueling exponential progress in testing and trials,” he said Friday.
Getting the Ford combat ready is about more than national security. It’s about the Navy’s credibility.
“There is a trail of tears that explains where we are,” Modly said at a December forum hosted by the U.S. Naval Institute, “but right now we need to fix that ship and make sure it works. There is nothing worse than having a ship like that, our most expensive asset, being out there as a metaphor for why the Navy can’t do anything right.”
Craig Hooper, a defense consultant who writes about naval issues, said Modly’s memo was a refreshing change of course and could herald a new narrative for a ship known for its litany of technical problems.
The first set of deadlines, while challenging, are certainly doable.
“There could still be complications,” Hooper said. “but I think there are enough bite-sized, easily winnable pieces that that you’re going to see a far more positive spring for Ford.”
Modly is the acting Navy secretary, and it’s possible President Trump might pick someone else to fill the position permanently. But the 2020 schedule could hold regardless.
“It may change if a new leader comes along,” Hooper said, “but putting it out there in public, it’s very had to retract that. So it’s packed full of opportunities to show goodness.”
A succession of positive steps might help with members of Congress, who have signaled their increasing impatience with the Ford.
Rep. Elaine Luria, a Virginia Beach Democrat and former Navy commander, complained last year that taxpayers have “invested in a $13 billion berthing barge” because of ongoing problems with the weapons elevators.
Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., raised eyebrows back in July during a hearing where he recited a list of Ford’s problems and said, “you know, this ought to be criminal.”
• Big picture: Lots of new tech all at once
The USS Gerald R. Ford incorporated a number of new, untested systems, which increased the chances for glitches, delays and cost overruns.
The Defense Department’s initial strategy was to phase in new technology over several ships, allowing the Navy to work out the bugs as time went on. The decision to go all-in on the first-in-class Ford came in the early 2000s.
When everything is working well, Ford Class carriers should launch more aircraft over a sustained period than Nimitz Class carriers — estimates have varied from 25-30% higher — while operating with fewer sailors.
• Advanced Weapons Elevators
Weapons elevators move ordnance from the lower levels of the ship to the flight deck so aircraft can be armed for combat. The Ford’s elevators use an electro-mechanical system that’s different from elevators on Nimitz Class ships, which use a cables and pulleys.
The Ford has 11 elevators, but only four were certified as of late last year. Former Navy Secretary Richard Spencer famously promised President Trump that all elevators would be working by mid-2019 or the president could fire him, a story first reported by USNI News. Elevators aside, Spencer lost his job in November over his controversial handling of a Navy SEAL disciplinary case.
• Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System
The catapults that shoot aircraft off the flight deck are popularly known as EMALS. They run on electromagnetic power similar to that of a roller-coaster, much different from steam-driven catapults on Nimitz Class ships. The EMALS system experienced growing pains early in the Ford Class program. It grabbed headlines again in 2017 when President Trump said it was too complex — “you have to be Albert Einstein to figure it out,” he said at one point — but the Navy stuck with it and now, after hundreds of tests, now expresses confidence in EMALS.
• Advanced Arresting Gear
The AAG catches aircraft that land on the flight deck. It employs a water twister/paddlewheel system. Early on, it had so many problems that Navy leaders considered abandoning it.
It was redesigned in 2013, and a new version was tested. In November 2014, the Government Accountability Office noted failures in land-based testing. In March 2015, a Naval Sea Systems Command officer said AAG was about two years behind schedule.
In July 2016, the Defense Department inspector general said the program had recorded a 332% cost increase through research, development, testing and evaluation. It represented an overrun of $571.5 million from 2005 numbers.
Further land-based testing of AAG increased confidence in the system, and the Navy has since endorsed it.
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