Navy’s Troubled New Carrier Undergoing Long Overdue Review

Better late than never, I guess.

Huntington Ingalls

In a move that is astonishingly overdue, Frank Kendall, the Undersecretary Of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics, has ordered an independent review of the Navy’s deeply troubled new aircraft carrier, the $13 billion USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN-78). In a memo obtained by Bloomberg.com, which has lately obtained a lot of sensitive DoD memos, Kendall states the obvious to Secretary of Navy Ray Mabus:

“With the benefit of hindsight, it was clearly premature to include so many unproven technologies in the Gerald R, Ford. That decision was made long ago as part of a DoD level initiative called ‘Transformation’… What we have to determine now is whether it is best to stay the course or adjust our plans, particularly for future ships of the class. The first step in that process has to be a completely objective and technically deep review of the current situation.”

According to USNI News here are the five areas the memo highlights as the focus of the 60 day study. Why? Because, frankly, they are mess:

Power Generation – Propulsion and electrical system components that could be associated with the recent issues discovered with the Main Turbine Generators.

Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System – A lack of reliability growth and the ability to support both surge and sustained aircraft operations.

Advanced Arresting Gear – The technical challenges identified in system hardware and software, achievement of design performance criteria for the operational envelope, reliability growth, and the ability to support both surge and sustained aircraft operations.

Dual Band Radar – Ship integration issues discovered on CVN 78 that need to be avoided with the Enterprise Air Surveillance Radar on CVN 79 and later.

Advanced Weapon Elevators – System reliability and anticipated growth affecting the ability of installed systems to support requirements for both surge and sustained aircraft operations.

The Ford is the first in her class, and teething issues are a given, but its problems are far from transient and seem to stem from the appalling use of concurrency in the ship’s design and procurement process. This included building untested technologies into the ship’s core design, and the consequences of that are amplified by the fact that this is the most expensive single weapon system in the world, and these ships are not built in mass serial production, so mistakes can't necessarily be “fixed in the next batch.”

Huntington Ingalls

The, America's first nuclear carrier, the USS Enterprise (CVN-65) sits partially dismantled across the pier from Navy's newest carrier, the USS Gerald R. Ford. Congress allowed the Enterprise to be retired without a replacement ready, lowering America's active carrier inventory to 10 ships until the Ford is operational.

Still, running this review now will do nothing to ease the USS Ford’s design issues. Even the second in the Ford class, the USS John F. Kennedy, will likely suffer from some of her current failings. But the USS Enterprise, the third ship in the Ford class, could likely see a redesign that will actually port over older, proven technologies back into her baseline design.

But the bottom line is that two of America’s newest super carriers—that's two of just 11 mandated in active inventory at any given time—could be plagued with mission-crippling components and there is not much the Navy can do about it now. A similar situation is occurring configuration-wise with the still-born USS America, and the third ship in her class, albeit for different reasons.

All this was easily foreseen. I wrote all about the Ford’s woes and how concurrency has sunk it and other programs in this supersized feature that was originally posted in early 2014 (a must-read to understand this issue). Meanwhile the Navy has been slow to react to the glaring probability that their new super carrier has systemic issues with pretty much all the core systems it needs to successfully accomplish its mission-- that being safely launching and recovering aircraft.

There has been a lot of optimistic talk about reworking key component designs and questionable improvements in reliability of some of these components, but the timelines keep moving. And when it comes to things like arresting gear and catapults on a carrier, reliability is key. Working some of the time just doesn’t cut it.

USN

The nearly complete Ford during a repositioning manuever. 

The Navy tried to defer critical shock trials in order to speed the Ford’s delivery after multiple unrelated delays, but that decision has since been overturned. The Ford is now slated an early winter delivery, a date that has continuously been pushed back. Still, none of the trouble areas highlighted in Kendall’s memo are likely to be anywhere near fixed by then. The ship will be in testing and its crew in training for two years before the Navy can declare the Ford operational, although even this schedule could prove daunting if key testing and certification goals cannot be met due to unreliable critical components that are still mired in developmental chaos. The goal is to have the CVN-78 ready for combat operations by 2021, at which time the ship will already be five years old, which is 10% of its design life.

What the Navy has not spoken a word about is holding anyone accountable within its ranks for such a disaster. That’s the problem really, the DoD has come around to openly admitting their procurement mistakes of the past as of late, whether it be not building enough F-22s, the flawed LCS procurement strategy or the concurrency boondoggle vis-a-vis the F-35, but there is little policy being put into place to make sure these mistakes don’t happen again. Making things worse is that consequences for these atrocious decisions simply don’t exist and defense contractors have little incentive to see that design goals are met are met on time. In fact, promising the world in an unrealistic timeline and at an unobtainable cost often wins contracts, not the other way around.

Huntington Ingalls

An angle showing one of the new features of the Ford class, large extension "wings" near the stern of the ship that expand the square footage available on the hangar deck. The platforms area can also be used for new weapons upgrades, such as lasers, and even potentially a vertical launch system.

There is light and the end of the tunnel, and programs like the KC-46 are structured so that the contractor shares in the pain of prolonged development times and their own unrealistic estimates. The Virginia class submarine has been a model of how to do procurement properly.

But lessons learned are quickly forgotten in the echoing halls of the Pentagon. Without a clearly spelled out a new doctrine for procurement, the Ford class will be just another embarrassing and very costly example in the never ending list of weapons programs that suffer from a military-industrial complex run amok.

Contact the author at tyler@thedrive.com