Revealed: Japan's Secret Weapon to Destroy China's J-20 and J-31

The Buzz

Japan is set to acquire four Northrop Grumman E-2D Advanced Hawkeyes airborne early warning aircraft that would nullify the threat of Chinese stealth fighters and afford it a potent missile defense capability. The new aircraft is equipped with a powerful hybrid mechanical/electronically scanned UHF-band radar that will be able to tie into the U.S. Navy’s state-of-the-art Naval Integrated Fire Control—Counter Air (NIFC-CA) battle network.

Japan’s purchase of the E-2D is significant because the capabilities of those two key features. The E-2D’s Lockheed Martin AN/APY-9 UHF-band radar is the central feature of the Advanced Hawkeye. Both friend and foe alike have touted UHF radars as an effective countermeasure to stealth technology. One early public example of that is a paper prepared by Arend Westra that appeared in the National Defense University’s Joint Forces Quarterly academic journal in the 4th quarter issue of 2009. “It is the physics of longer wavelength and resonance that enables VHF and UHF radar to detect stealth aircraft,” Westra wrote in his article titled Radar vs. Stealth.

UHF-band radars operate at frequencies between 300MHz and 1GHz, which results in wavelengths that are between 10 centimeters and one meter long. Typically, due to the physical characteristics of fighter-sized stealth aircraft, they must be optimized to defeat higher frequencies in the Ka, Ku, X, C and parts of the S-bands.

There is a resonance effect that occurs when a feature on an aircraft—such as a tail-fin tip— is less than eight times the size of a particular frequency wavelength. That omnidirectional resonance effect produces a “step change” in an aircraft’s radar cross-section. Effectively what that means is that small stealth aircraft that do not have the size or weight allowances for two feet or more of radar absorbent material coatings on every surface are forced to make trades as to which frequency bands they are optimized for.

That would include aircraft like the Chengdu J-20, Shenyang J-31, Sukhoi PAK-FA and indeed the United States’ own Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor and tri-service F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. Only very large stealth aircraft without protruding empennage surfaces — like the Northrop Grumman B-2 Spirit or the forthcoming Long Range Strike-Bomber — can meet the requirement for geometrical optics regime scattering. Effectively, that means the E-2D’s AN/APY-9 radar can see stealth aircraft like the J-20 or J-31.

Pentagon and industry officials concede that low-frequency radars operating in the VHF and UHF bands can detect and even track low-observable aircraft—that’s just physics. But conventional wisdom has always held that such systems cannot generate a “weapons quality” track—or in other words, are unable to guide a missile onto a target. “Poor resolution in angle and range, however, has historically prevented these radars from providing accurate targeting and fire control,” Westra wrote.

However, electronic scanning and new signal processing techniques have mitigated those shortcomings to an extent. And there are other techniques in development, such as linking multiple low-frequency radars via high-speed datalinks, which might enable those radars to generate weapons quality tracks. But industry officials say those technologies are not ready for prime time.

Yet, the U.S. Navy and Lockheed may have already solved the problem. The service openly talks about the E-2D’s role as the central node of its NIFC-CA battle network to defeat enemy air and missile threats. Indeed, Rear Adm. Mike Manazir, the Navy’s director of air warfare, described the concept in detail to myself and my good friend Sam LaGrone at the U.S. Naval Institute just before Christmas in 2013.

Under the NIFC-CA ‘From the Air’ (FTA) construct, the APY-9 radar would act as a sensor to cue Raytheon AIM-120 AMRAAM air-to-air missiles for Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornets fighters via the Link-16 datalink. Moreover, the APY-9 would also act as a sensor to guide Raytheon Standard SM-6 missiles launched from Aegis cruisers and destroyers against targets located beyond the ships’ SPY-1 radars’ horizon via the Cooperative Engagement Capability datalink under the NIFC-CA ‘From the Sea’ (FTS) construct. In fact, the Navy has demonstrated live-fire NIFC-CA missile shots using the E-2D’s radar to guide SM-6 missiles against over-the-horizon shots—which by definition means the APY-9 is generating a weapons quality track.

For Japan, it is the E-2D’s ability to facilitate over-the-horizon missile shots against supersonic anti-ship missiles, stealthy low-level cruise missiles and theatre ballistic missiles that are of great interest given the growing threat from China and North Korea. The ability to nullify China’s investment in the Chengdu J-20 and J-31 is likely just an added bonus—especially if Japan upgrades its F-15 Eagles and other fighters to take advantage of NIFC-CA.

Indeed, there is a possibility Japan plans to do just that. According to a recent Sept. 25, 2015, story that appeared in the Yomiuri Shimbun—which is the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s favored news outlet—Japan is building two Aegis destroyers installed with NIFC-CA. “The Defense Ministry will introduce NIFC-CA capable E-2D airborne early warning aircraft and also plans to install the latest information-sharing system that supports NIFC-CA on two Aegis ships now being built,” the Yomiuri Shimbun reported.

U.S. Navy and Defense Department officials said they would have to defer comment to the Japanese defense ministry. “It's up to the Japanese to decide if they want to discuss numbers and delivery dates,” a Naval Air Systems Command spokesman told me. Nor is manufacturer Northrop Grumman able to comment on the Japanese sale. However, I have learnt that Japan plans to buy four aircraft, which are likely to be delivered in 2019. The Pentagon had notified Congress of a potential sale to Japan of the Advanced Hawkeye earlier this year in June.

Dave Majumdar is the defense editor for The National Interest. You can follow him on Twitter: @davemajumdar.



Warning: Iran Could Already Be Gaming the Nuclear Deal

The Buzz

While the world focused on the escalating Russian and Iranian intervention in Syria, the continuing debate in Tehran over adopting the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) has gotten a little lost. But listening to the Iranian parliament argue whether the nuclear deal should be adopted—something the US Congress will not get a chance to do—provides great insight into how the leadership intends to implement the deal. Little of this insight is reassuring.

As we approach the deal’s October 19 Adoption Day anticipated by the United Nations Security Council, there is no indication that Iran is backing away from the JCPOA. That has not stopped Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei from letting the parliament and hardline critics have a go at the JCPOA’s flaws, especially if that helps check President Hassan Rouhani’s popular support. The special parliamentary commission established to review the JCPOA has frequently taken an adversarial stance towards the deal and the president over the past few weeks.

Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani, a current ally of Rouhani, has rushed the commission’s review under a “double emergency plan” mechanism. The mechanism—which sounds awfully like something from Animal House—is most likely designed to minimize the bloodletting from a drawn out process. Parliamentarian and Commission Spokesman Hossein Naghavi Hosseini stated the final report will likely recommend a resolution that will neither “accept” nor “reject” the nuclear deal, but instead would “provisionally approve” the JCPOA. This gives the parliament its say without hampering the administration’s ability to maneuver.

Once the report is read in parliament, there will be plenty of spin designed to obscure the realities of the deal and appease domestic audiences. Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) spokesman Behrouz Kamalvandi’s statement that Iran collected samples at the Parchin Military Complex in the absence of inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) cast doubt on the integrity of inspections at the suspect site. It also showed the extent to which concerns of regime legitimacy continue to outweigh appearances in the minds of Iran’s leaders. Expect to see a litany of assertions about what the JCPOA does and does not compel Iran to do. Officials will argue the agreement does not restrict Iran’s missile activity, and that sanctions relief should be immediate per the Supreme Leader’s redlines.

Cherry-picking which parts of the deal will be considered legitimate is one element of a larger approach Tehran appears to be taking with the JCPOA. Supreme Leader Khamenei and former nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili have argued that because the P5+1 members are only “suspending” the sanction regime rather than removing it, Iran should handle its implementation of the deal in a similar manner. By merely “suspending” its nuclear program, Iran can keep it as reconstitutable as possible. This is easy with some program components, such as centrifuges. Other elements will be more difficult, especially the required reconfiguration of the Arak heavy water research reactor and the reduction of Iran’s uranium stockpile.

The P5+1 and Iran are still negotiating the details of the redesign for the Arak reactor, and Iranian officials have attempted to spin this issue as well. On July 27, Salehi argued that US Secretary of State John Kerry was “mistaken when he said that the Arak Reactor’s core will be removed and filled with concrete.” Salehi emphasized that while that the calandria will be removed, set aside, and filled with concrete—just as Kerry had noted—Iran would retain the option to “install a new reservoir in the place of the old one” should the nuclear deal fail. Regardless of Salehi’s spin, the JCPOA requires that the existing calandria “be made inoperable”. China is coordinating Arak-related talks between Iran and the P5+1, but these details must be worked out prior to Implementation Day, currently expected in early 2016.

Iran’s arrangements for the conversion or transfer of its excess uranium stockpile also remain to be determined. Iran’s Permanent Representative to the IAEA Board of Governors Reza Najafi explained on September 11 that it was “possible” Iran could transfer its excess stockpile to Russia, but noted that Iran was reviewing its “strategies, methods, and options.” He explained, “One existing option is changing and converting stockpiles, and another option is exporting products to other countries.” Recent reports from the sidelines of the September IAEA General Conference indicate that the Russian option is coalescing. Salehi met with Sergei Kiriyenko, the head of Russia’s nuclear company Rosatom, and discussed the "issue of when, how, and in what manner" to transport enriched uranium to Russia.

It is a good bet that Russia will be the end buyer for the stockpile, just as it is likely that China will play a large role in the redesign of Arak. Iranian officials’ insistence on weighing their options could be seen as simply foot-dragging, or as a prelude to a more serious effort to game the terms of the JCPOA. The Iranian leadership also needs these public debates to prevent Tehran’s compliance with the deal from appearing as capitulation to the West.

Ultimately, Iranian officials will continue spinning statements for domestic audiences, emphasizing the reversibility of those aspects of the nuclear agreement that the P5+1 hoped would be the most irreversible.

J. Matthew McInnis is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. Tara Beeny is a research assistant at the American Enterprise Institute. This report was produced in cooperation with the Iran Team of the Critical Threats Project. It analyzes the most important Iran news events of the past week and provides an outlook of the regime’s strategic calculus.

Editor's Note: This piece originally appeared on AEIdeas blog. You can find it here.



Russia Could Fly 96 Sorties a Day over Syria

The Buzz

The Russian expeditionary force in Syria could generate as many as ninety-six fixed-wing combat aircraft sorties per day, assuming they have well-oiled logistics and properly trained maintenance crews. But that is a best-case scenario during a “combat surge”; more realistically, the thirty-two Russian jets at Latakia might be able to generate only twenty sorties per day.

“With thirty-two on the ramp, I think they'll probably be able to fly twenty-four jets per day,” one recently retired U.S. Air Force fighter pilot told me. “Depending on sortie duration and whether they're flying at night, they may get between two and four sorties per jet, per day. So I think the range is probably between forty-eight and ninety-six sorties per day.”

But while the Russians might be able to generate as many as ninety-six sorties in a day during a surge, they might not be able to sustain that pace for long. “Whether or not they'll be able to sustain a pace like that will be interesting to watch,” stated the retired fighter pilot.

Another current U.S. Air Force official agreed with the assessment. “That's about right,” the second Air Force official said. “There are a lot of variables though—number of aircrew and maintainers, aerial refueling, distance from airfield to target and the amount of intel on deliberate targets. Some could be flying on-call CAPs [combat air patrols] waiting for targets and flying longer missions while others takeoff on deliberate missions where they take off with pre-designated targets.”

But other U.S. Air Force officials are dubious—given the Russians’ relatively anemic logistical train and the diverse types of aircraft that they have fielded. “I think those numbers are really optimistic,” said a third senior U.S. Air Force official. “If I had thirty-two airplanes and they were all different I think we could—with good logistics—get a four-turn-four from the Su-24s, a four-turn-four from the Su-25s, and two-turn-twos from the Su-30s and Su-34s…. So that’s twenty-four sorties a day.”

Moreover, the Russian aircraft have not been observed flying at night—which cuts down on their sortie generation rate. That has led other Air Force and Marine officials to conclude that the Russians might be flying as few as 20 twenty sorties per day—mostly in pairs and with sporadic support from the four air superiority oriented Su-30SM Flankers. Only some Russian aircraft have been observed carrying KAB-500 satellite-guided bombs or Kh-29 laser-guided missiles. That means that most Russian aircraft have to flying during the day when dropping unguided munitions. “I don’t see them flying at night especially since they’re dropping dumb bombs,” the third official said.

However, the Su-25s might be able generate more sorties than the other aircraft types present at Latakia because they operate differently from typical fighter aircraft. “The Frogfoot would have a whole different operating construct – shorter sorties and ordnance loading requirements,” said a fourth senior U.S. Air Force official. “Perhaps seventy-five percent tail availability, three sorties per day is reasonable.”

U.S. forces are typically able to maintain about seventy percent mission availability during combat surges—but the Russians are not likely to be able to match that. One U.S. Air Force commander said that he was able to keep four F-15C Eagles aloft twenty-four hours a day with twelve deployed aircraft during Operation Iraqi Freedom. The F-15Cs had to fly for six hours per day during those sorties. “With hard work and good logistics, this was comfortable,” the U.S. Air Force official said. “Can the Russians do that? I don't know – their jets are rugged, but like I said, I'm skeptical about logistics.”

U.S. Navy officials offered similar assessments. “We recently took seven top-of-the-line Super Hornets to [Naval Air Station] Fallon [Nevada] for a det,” a senior naval aviator said. “You can safely assuming that a part of the time the seventh jet will be undergoing maintenance, so I suspect the Russians have eight to ten [out of each 12 aircraft detachment of Su-24s and Su-25s] available at any time.”

Like the Air Force officials, U.S. Navy officials questioned how many sorties the Russian forces would be able to fly. “We also flew a five-turn-five-turn-five schedule for fifteen sorties a day,” the naval aviator said. “This was relatively aggressive from a resource standpoint. We’re talking jets, but how many pilots did they bring? What is their maintenance footprint?”

The problem for the Russians is that they have not deployed overseas since the collapse of the Soviet Union. “Russian logistics will probably be the long pole in the tent,” the fourth Air Force official said. It’s a problem further compounded by Russia’s use of conscript troops rather than professionals. “They are not used to this like we are. Our maintainers are smart… Not conscripts. They’re motivated and they know the business well,” the third official said. “I don’t think the Russians are dumb, but they’re not Americans.”

The difficulty in gauging the Russians’ sortie generation capability is complex because there are a lot of unknowns. Factors like maintenance efficiency, fuel and weapons availability, parts logistics reach back, and general pilot and maintainer proficiency during surge operations are just a few of the factors that can have a drastic effect impact on sortie generation. The U.S. Air Force has developed its methods after a lot of trial and error—and a lot of practice. “The USAF has a complex method of ensuring it has enough jets and pilots to maintain surge operations, and it relies on bringing enough of these things together in sufficient quantity with well trained operators to implement them,” said a fifth Air Force official. “That's what makes us so good. The synergy between man and machine to endure for the long haul.”

Image: Wikimedia Commons/Alex Beltyukov


Politics versus Policy: Follow-up to the Iran Nuclear Agreement

Paul Pillar

The Obama administration had to expend considerable political capital in fending off attempts, during the recent Congressional review period, to kill the agreement to restrict Iran's nuclear program. As a matter of policy toward that program, such expenditure should never have been necessary; the strict limitations and scrutiny of the program that are embodied in the agreement are clearly better for U.S. interests than the absence of such limitations and scrutiny if the agreement had been killed. But the expenditure was required to beat back opposition to the agreement that was rooted not in any consideration of the merits of the agreement itself but instead in other reasons that opponents had to oppose the administration and to keep Iran isolated. It is not surprising, given how domestic politics tends to work, that since the agreement survived last month's Congressional gauntlet we have been seeing a sort of rebalancing of political accounts in which the forces opposing the agreement are being propitiated in other respects. Although the propitiation is understandable in terms of domestic politics, it is damaging U.S. foreign policy interests. It undermines the prospects for constructively building on the agreement to advance other U.S. interests in the Middle East, and it may even imperil the nuclear agreement itself.

The political rebalancing is manifested in an amplification of hostility toward, and threats against, Iran. All the negative things that were said about Iran in the course of earlier debate on the nuclear agreement are being said, across the political spectrum and across the different branches of government as well as in public discourse, with as much loudness as they were before. All the required mantras about the need to oppose the “nefarious” things that Iran supposedly is doing in its region are being recited as automatically as they were before. Every opportunity is taken to kick Iran in the shins verbally and to disavow any possibility of American friendship with it. These themes are apparent not only in the general rhetoric in Washington but also in draft legislation. This includes Senator Ben Cardin's bill for an “Iran Policy Oversight Act,” which includes almost nothing about building positively on the agreement but instead is mostly about expressing hostility and making threats, including the threat of reimposing sanctions on Iran.

None of this makes any sense if one goes beyond domestic American politics and considers what the agreement has or has not changed. It makes no sense as a response to a diplomatic accord in which Iran has committed itself to keep its nuclear program peaceful and has backed up that commitment by subjecting itself to unprecedented monitoring of, and limitations on, the program. The negativity would make much more sense if the Iranian behavior had been the opposite of what it really was—that is, if Tehran had walked away from the negotiations and, amid more threat-making of its own, had resumed expansion of an unrestricted nuclear program.

The negativity-infused political rebalancing jeopardizes the prospects for the United States advancing its interests in the Middle East through a more complete and unfettered diplomacy on several important issues in which Iran also has an interest. The security situations in, and political futures of, Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan top the list of those issues, but there are other important topics as well, including broader questions of security in the Persian Gulf region. Building on the nuclear agreement means taking advantage of the ice-breaking effect of the nuclear negotiations, which moved away from a situation in which U.S. and Iranian officials were not even talking to each other, to conduct effective and mutually beneficial business on these other matters.

Notwithstanding earlier anti-agreement rhetoric to the effect that we should not expect Iran to become nice because of the nuclear accord, what is involved is not niceness. What is involved is Iran acting on behalf of its own interests—some of which parallel U.S. interests and some of which diverge from U.S. interests on each of the issues just mentioned. That is the sort of non-zero-sum situation that is the stuff of the normal give-and-take in normal diplomacy. And for the United States, building on the diplomatic breakthrough of the nuclear accord is less a matter of unshackling Iranian diplomacy than of unshackling its own diplomacy, and of availing itself of a full box of tools for pursuing its interests in the Middle East.

The amplified negativity and animosity toward Iran that emanate from the U.S. domestic political pot not only threaten to get in the way of a broader and more effective U.S. diplomacy in the region but also takes no account of the fact that the Iranians have domestic politics as well. The hostile vibes from Washington weaken the position of President Rouhani and those who are inclined to be part of a more constructive regional diplomacy, and play into the hands of unreconstructed hardliners who would be more content with Iran remaining an isolated rogue. The political dynamics involved, of hostility begetting more hostility and of hardliners in each capital helping the other's cause, are a threat not only to effective diplomacy on other topics but also to the nuclear agreement itself. Iranian hardliners who never liked the agreement will be eager to seize on anything that enables them to argue that all of Iran's concessions bought it nothing but endless enmity from the United States.

A major part of the U.S. political rebalancing act is a push to provide yet more U.S. assistance to regional rivals of Iran, which mainly means the Gulf Arab states and Israel. Again, there is no logic to this in terms of what the nuclear agreement did and did not change. Iran's placing of its nuclear program under additional restrictions and scrutiny does not make Iran more of a threat to anyone than it was before. Iran's becoming less of an isolated rogue and more of a normal actor in regional politics does not make Iran any more of a threat to anyone than it was before. And notwithstanding how heavily opponents of the nuclear agreement tried to rely on the argument that sanctions relief will give Iran a financial windfall that it will use to fund more “nefarious” activity in the region, that argument still is no more valid than it ever was—given how most of the funds in question are already committed to purposes where they have been frozen outside the region, how the needed uses for the funds include domestic economic development and strengthening Iran's international finances, and how there is no evidence that Iran makes its regional policy according to the balance in its bank account, no evidence that “nefarious” activity went down when severe sanctions were imposed, and thus no reason to expect that it will go up when the same sanctions are loosened.

The Gulf Arabs and Israel have their own reasons to try to hinder and isolate their Iranian rival, but these are not interests the United States shares and they do not involve genuine security threats to the countries concerned. The Arab states of the Gulf Cooperation Council already have clear military superiority over the Iranian armed forces. In the case of Israel, it has overwhelming military superiority over everybody else in the region, both at the conventional level and at the level the agreement with Iran was designed to address.

That superiority will continue even if the United States were not to lift a finger on Israel's behalf in the years ahead. A pattern nonetheless prevails in which the United States has given Israel $124 billion in no-strings-attached aid and continues giving it at a clip of about $3.1 billion a year, not counting hundreds of millions of additional assistance in the form of joint defense projects. The aid is being given to a state that is among the richest one-fifth of the countries of the world, as ranked by GDP per capita. That pattern ought to make every American taxpayer cringe, especially when reminded of budget-constrained cuts to programs for the benefit of Americans themselves. The pattern is cringe-worthy even without getting into questions of what sort of Israeli policies and practices the United States is in effect subsidizing. And yet there is talk today of increasing aid to Israel even further.

If policy could trump politics rather than the other way around, policy would take advantage of the political achievement of being able to get the nuclear agreement through Congress despite the huge effort to defeat it by the lobby that works on behalf of the right-wing Israeli government. The episode demonstrates that it is possible to defy the lobby on a matter on which it has pulled out all the stops, and still survive to tell the tale. A far-sighted and courageous response to this episode would seize the occasion to make several policy adjustments. One would be long-overdue rectification of the aid pattern just described. Related to that would be construction of policy toward Israel that would make the important point that no foreign government will be rewarded for behaving toward the United States the way that particular government behaved regarding the nuclear agreement, which was to do everything it could to subvert U.S. diplomacy and foreign policy, including through blatant interference in domestic U.S. politics. And another response would be to address, seriously and effectively and not just with wrist-slaps, the unresolved Israel-Palestinian conflict, including changing the practice of automatically providing political cover to Israel at the United Nations no matter what the resolution on the table may say.

Unfortunately, none of this appears likely to happen. President Obama, in his speech at the United Nations General Assembly, gave no hint that he was about to move in a new direction regarding the Palestinian question. The one potentially justifiable reason for going with the current flow regarding the post-nuclear-accord political rebalancing is that the agreement itself is important enough, and the continued efforts to sabotage it will be persistent enough, that the Congressional Democrats who supported the agreement need enough political cover and need to make enough anti-Iranian noise to keep them away from any clearly agreement-killing measures. Maybe so, but this approach is hardly far-sighted and courageous. It looks like nearsightedness and folding to fear will again prevail. Politics probably will trump sound policy on these matters, as usual. And that means missing major opportunities to advance U.S. interests.                      

TopicsIran Israel Nonproliferation RegionsMiddle East

This Could 'Sink' the U.S. Navy's New Aircraft Carriers (And it’s Not China)

The Buzz

The Government Accountability Office has slammed the U.S. Navy for badly managing its plans to buy new Gerald R. Ford-class aircraft carriers. Too late to do anything about delays and soaring costs, the top government watchdog hopes the boondoggle will at least be a teachable moment.

In 2009, Newport News Shipbuilding started construction of the first ship in the class, the USS Gerald R. Ford, also known as CVN-78. Scheduled to enter service in May 2016, the vessel may not arrive with key gear and is already $2 billion over budget.

“Budgets set early in the Ford-class program were not realistically achievable and included optimistic delivery dates to the fleet,” Paul Francis, GAO’s managing director of acquisition and sourcing management, bluntly told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Oct. 1. “The consequences of this tension have been realized today … with promised levels of capability potentially compromised.”

Having warned of exactly this outcome two years before the Virginia-based shipbuilder laid down CVN-78’s hull, Francis could not help but slip in an “I told you so” up front in the GAO’s full report titled “Poor Outcomes Are the Predictable Consequences of the Prevalent Acquisition Culture.”

“In July 2007, we reported on weaknesses in the Navy’s business case for theFord-class aircraft carrier,” Francis noted to the assembled lawmakers. “Today, all of this has come to pass in the form of cost growth, testing delays and reduced capability – in other words, less for more.”

But at least according to the current requirements, Ford is already 92 percent complete. So, all the Pentagon can do is try to prevent these kind of messes with future members of the class and other big ticket items.

More than a decade ago, the Pentagon started considering replacements for the Navy’s venerable Nimitz-class carriers. In service since 1975, the sailing branch has progressively updated Nimitz and her sisters over the years.

Unfortunately, the basic design imposes significant limits on the scope of any changes. The Navy specifically wanted the Ford class to allow for more dramatic improvements.

Among other features, the new ships have an updated nuclear reactor, bigger flight decks, an electromagnetic catapult to launch aircraft, upgraded computer systems, more powerful radars and an advanced mechanism to help catch landing planes. In contrast, even the newest Nimitz-class vessels look particularly dated with their Cold War-era nuclear power plants, steam-powered catapults, spotty Internet connections and increasingly outdated electronics.

Unlike the previous modifications, these improvements centered in no small part on largely untested technologies that would take time to get working. In itsfirst report on the project eight years ago, GAO had zeroed in on these potential issues.

The government watchdog highlighted seven unrealistic expectations the Navy had about the project. Most importantly, despite the fact that contractors were still developing many of the core systems, the sailing branch assumed that the overall shape and size of the carrier would remain essentially the same throughout construction.

With the hope that the final design would have a hull similar to the older carriers, the Navy assured the Pentagon the work could be done quickly and on the cheap compared to those ships. GAO and Newport News both disagreed.

“Specifically, we noted that the Navy’s cost estimate of $10.5 billion and two million fewer labor hours made the unprecedented assumption that the CVN 78 would take fewer labor hours than its more mature predecessor – the CVN 77 [USS George H.W. Bush],” Francis told senators. “The shipbuilder’s estimate – 22 percent higher in cost – was more in line with actual historical experience.”

The watchdog’s fears turned out to be well founded. Six years after publishing their initial criticisms, GAO released a second report stating that, as expected, new equipment such as the ship’s radar, and Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System and the Advanced Arresting Gear landing system were all running into trouble.

When construction of Ford began, the Navy had not built a single one of the radar units it expected to fit on the ship. Engineers had never tested the components they had built outside of a laboratory.

The sailing branch had started prototyping the EMALS and AAG gear, but on land. GAO found that both of these state-of-the-art systems were experiencing relatively normal teething problems.

The shipbuilders had to incorporate design changes into the vessel they were already building. Unsurprisingly, the new carrier was over-budget by 22 percent – perfectly in line with Newport News’ original estimates.

In January, the Pentagon’s top weapon tester pointed out continuing problems with various important systems, especially the EMALS and AAG gear. Four months later, the Navy finally tested throwing a weighed sled with the new catapult off the still in-progress Ford.

“Reliability for the catapult and arresting gear systems have not been reported on in over a year,” the Director of Operational Test and Evaluation wrote in its annual summary of the program. “Before the Navy stopped tracking/reporting on catapult and arresting gear performance, both systems were performing well below their projected target to achieve required reliability.”

Then there was the matter of shock testing CVN 78. The Navy routinely uses explosives to shake new ships to make sure they’re ready for dangerous, combat situations.

Despite initial plans for a so-called Full Ship Shock Trial, “the Navy unilaterally reneged on the approved strategy on June 18, 2012,” according to the Pentagon’s year overview. In August, Frank Kendall — the under secretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics — sent a memo to Navy secretary Ray Mabus ordering him go ahead with the tests, according to a report from Bloomberg.

Beyond delays resulting from issues with the ship and its equipment, the Navy kept revising the number of sailors it will take to run the ship based on various design changes. “As manning requirements have been further developed, analysis indicates the present design has insufficient berthing for some ranks requiring re-designation/redesign of some spaces as a possible solution,” the Pentagon evaluators discovered.

The Pentagon figured the sailing branch will run into problems getting the Ford ready for its version of the troublesome F-35 stealth fighter. All told, GAO isn’t sure the Navy can meet its goal of having the ship fully operational less than five years from now.

“The timeframes for post-delivery testing, i.e. the period when the ship would demonstrate many of its capabilities, are being compressed by ongoing system delays,” Francis said. “This tight test schedule could result in deploying without fully tested systems if the Navy maintains the ship’s ready-to-deploy date in 2020.”

Perhaps even more problematic, the Navy’s failure to be realistic about the carriers from the start means the costs are likely to keep growing beyond the more reasonable estimates at the beginning from GAO or Newport News. Regardless of the final price tag, “the Navy’s approach … results in a more expensive, yet less complete and capable ship at delivery than initially planned,” Francis declared.

However, the wrangling over CVN 78’s cost is basically over. But Francis told senators he was worried about the same problems playing out with the second ship in the class, the John F. Kennedy – a.k.a. CVN 79.

As with the Ford, GAO accused the Navy of being overly optimistic about the up-front costs and fudging the numbers by planning to install key gear after getting the ship. If the sailing branch proceeded as planned, Francis explained the service would be accepting yet another carrier with the same flaws as the first one.

“I think what we’ve seen with the CVN 78 and the CVN 79 was optimism verging on delusion about what each carrier was going to cost,” Mandy Smithberger, director of the Straus Military Reform Project at the Center for Defense Information, told War Is Boring after reviewing the watchdog’s report. “The Navy and the Pentagon knew that the true cost was politically untenable.”

Beyond that, both the Pentagon and lawmakers have refused to keep to their own budget caps with the new carriers. Congress has put caps in place to try and control the price point. The Navy had previously convinced lawmakers to loosen those rules as the Ford became more expensive.

Now, the Kennedy is already at its Congressional mandated $11.5 billion cap. Under existing plans, however, both the Pentagon’s own Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation office and the Congressional Budget Office expect the ship’s final cost to go up.

According to Francis, the debacle has been the result of complacency on all sides and culture that promotes throwing money at problems. “In the commercial marketplace, investment in a new product represents an expense,” the managing director noted. But for the military, “new products represent a revenue, in the form of a budget line.”

In turn, the services offer overly optimistic assessments of their own projects to secure pieces of that increasingly shrinking budget. The Navy is already looking for money for CVN 80, despite clearly not having a real sense of how much the new carriers actually cost.

“The environment of Navy shipbuilding is unique as it is characterized by a symbiotic relationship between buyer [Navy] and builder,” Francis added. “Under such a scenario, the government has a limited ability to negotiate favorable contract terms in light of construction challenges and virtually no ability to walk away from the investment once it is underway.”

In his concluding remarks, Francis said that the only way to avoid bigger problems in the future is to have a serious conversation about how the Pentagon asks for and how Congress doles out money for large defense programs.

“I think it’s easy for the Pentagon and Congress to dismiss GAO’s warnings and predictions at the beginning,” Smithberger lamented. “It’s only when the chickens come home to roost that they start to pay attention.”

The most important point seems to be that everyone involved in the process needs to get real about their spending habits from the start.

This piece first appeared in WarIsBoring here