USS Gerald R. Ford's troublesome weapons elevators making progress, Navy says
By HUGH LESSIG | The Daily Press | Published: January 19, 2019
NEWPORT NEWS, Va. (Tribune News Service) — The Navy has accepted the first advanced weapons elevator on the aircraft carrier Gerald R. Ford, a step forward for a system in which lingering problems have prompted concern.
The Dec. 21 acceptance followed testing and certification by engineers at Newport News Shipbuilding, where the ship is undergoing post-shakedown work, according to a Navy news release.
The acceptance is a “major milestone” for the elevators, which operate on electromagnetic energy and are designed for greater capacity and faster movement of weapons, the Navy said.
Concerns about the elevators have gone back years, sometimes overshadowed by problems with other new systems on the first-in-class ship, such as the catapults and arresting gear.
In June 2017, the Government Accountability Office reported that the elevators “continue to have issues with reliability, which will affect their ability to support aircraft operations.”
That same month, the ship was delivered to the Navy without working elevators. It was later commissioned at Naval Station Norfolk with President Donald Trump in attendance.
Problems continued into 2018, attracting the attention of Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla. He succeeded the late John McCain as chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
In December, Inhofe said he spoke to then-Defense Secretary James Mattis about his concerns.
"Until these elevators work, we only have 10 operational aircraft carriers despite a requirement for 12, " he said in the email.
James F. Geurts, the Navy's chief weapons buyer, told the Senate Armed Services panel in November that he would likely put together a team to look at the weapons elevator program in the long term.
But that effort would not focus on the Ford’s 11 elevators, where he said the Navy and shipbuilder are making progress.
Acceptance and progress
Weapons elevators on Nimitz-class carriers, which use cables for movement, can move up to 10,500 pounds at 100 feet per minute. The Ford-class elevators are capable of moving up to 24,000 pounds of ordnance at 150 feet per minute.
“This will allow us to load more aircraft faster, and in the long run, increase our overall sortie generation rate,” said Lt. Cmdr. Chabonnie Alexander, the ship’s ordnance handling officer.
The Ford has three upper-stage elevators that move ordnance between the main deck and the flight deck. Seven lower-stage elevators move ordnance between the main deck and the lower decks. A separate utility elevator can move ordnance or supplies, and can evacuate injured sailors from the flight deck to the hangar bay.
Although accepting the first elevator is a big step, work remains to be done on the other 10. All installation and testing of elevators is scheduled to be done by July, when post-shakedown work is expected to end.
Work on the weapons elevators prompted an unusual commitment from Navy Secretary Richard V. Spencer. According to a story in U.S. Naval Institute News, Spencer told Trump that the elevators would work by the time the carrier heads back to sea.
If not, Spencer said, Trump could fire him.
“We’re going to get it done,” Spencer said. “I know I’m going to get it done. I haven’t been fired yet by anyone; being fired by the president really isn’t on the top of my list.”