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


The Destructive U.S.-Backed Campaign in Yemen

Paul Pillar

The killing earlier this week of at least 131 civilians at a wedding party was only the latest and deadliest event in a campaign of airstrikes in Yemen by a foreign coalition led by Saudi Arabia. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCR) reports that during a six-month period from late March until last week (even before the incident involving the wedding) at least 2,355 civilians had been killed in the fighting in Yemen, with almost two-thirds of the deaths caused by airstrikes conducted by Saudi Arabia and its Gulf Arab allies. The same Saudi-led coalition is maintaining a blockade of Yemen's main seaports that has further exacerbated a humanitarian crisis in which, according to UNHCR, four out of five Yemenis require assistance.

This carnage and associated suffering are being largely overlooked and even excused in the United States. In fact, according to official White House statements, the Obama administration is providing “logistical and intelligence support” to the Saudi-led military intervention. Insufficient attention to what is really going on in Yemen can be partly explained by the distractions of what is going on elsewhere in the Middle East. Most recently this has included the Russian military intervention in Syria, which has received far more attention than the Yemeni war but, especially with this week's Russian airstrikes, is remarkably similar in both nature and purpose to what the Saudis are doing in Yemen. Another major reason for the inappropriate American attitudes and posture toward what is going on in Yemen is a habit of rigidly thinking of all events especially in the Middle East in terms of a fixed line-up of “allies” and foes, without regard to any consistency in upholding standards of international behavior or to any careful consideration of where U.S. interests do and do not lie.

The single biggest member of this perceived, mind-numbing line-up is Iran, the focus of the politically correct habit of thinking of it as nothing but a foe, and the arch-foe in the region at that. The required ritual references to “nefarious” Iranian activity that is “destabilizing” the Middle East flow off lips so automatically they probably could flow in one's sleep, and are routinely uttered with no reference at all to what Iran actually is or is not doing in the region.

The Iranian connection to the Yemeni conflict is Tehran's sympathy, and some undetermined degree of material support, for the Houthis, who have been one of the most significant and successful players in that multidimensional conflict. The Houthi movement has been a major player in Yemen for over a decade and has needed no instigation from Iran to assert itself. For the Houthis, who are Zaidi Shiites, the motivations for assertion include concern over the rise of Sunni extremism—including in the form of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP)—as well as longer-standing issues of distribution of political and economic power within Yemen. Iran's perspective is based partly on sectarian sympathy, although amid a region and a wider Muslim world in which Sunnis outnumber Shiites, Tehran does not have any strong incentive to exacerbate sectarian conflict. Iran tried to dissuade the Houthis from moving against the Yemeni capital Sana, but the Houthis ignored that advice and captured the city anyway. In any event, whatever material aid Iran has given to the Houthis pales in comparison with the direct air, ground, and naval role that Saudi Arabia and its allies are playing in Yemen.

The Houthis' activity is only a part of a bigger and more complex set of conflicts in Yemen, a country where no one has ever really controlled the whole thing and that was not even officially a single country until North and South Yemen merged in 1990. Southern resistance to what is seen as northern domination of the merged state has ever since been a major part of Yemeni instability. The instability of more recent years was initiated not by anything the Houthis did but instead by an Arab Spring-style uprising that pushed out the longstanding president, Ali Abdullah Saleh. He was replaced by Saleh's former vice president, Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, whose claim to legitimacy was an “election” in which he was the only candidate, who himself later became the target of demonstrations for not carrying out promised reforms, and whom the Saudis wound up taking under their wing. Perhaps the most significant development leading to the current level of violence and suffering in Yemen was the accession to power in Riyadh of King Salman and his young son the defense minister and aspirant to the throne, who decided to use Yemen to make a statement about who's boss in the Arabian Peninsula.

To appreciate the inconsistency in the application in Yemen of standards of international behavior, imagine that Iran had been doing anything like what the Saudis have been doing in Yemen, including using its air force to conduct strikes like the one against the wedding party. The uproar in this country would be deafening, perhaps enough to derail the recently completed nuclear agreement.

There is no good justification for the United States to be identifying itself with, much less materially supporting, the Saudi intervention in Yemen. It is supporting the cause of most of the destruction and suffering in the country, rather than reducing the destruction and suffering (although the United States is furnishing some humanitarian aid for Yemen). It is earning opprobrium and resentment for being associated with the Saudi campaign. It is making matters even worse for itself by knuckling under to the Saudi preference to prevent even an impartial United Nations inquiry into wartime excesses by all sides in the Yemeni conflict, including the Houthis.

The United States does not have a direct stake in the internal contests for power and influence in Yemen. Even if it did, it would be hard to explain the side it is taking now. Saleh was considered a U.S. partner during his long time in power, and now he is allied with the Houthis.

The United States does have a stake in how instability in Yemen can reverberate in the form of transnational terrorism and extremism, but again it is on the wrong side. The Houthi movement does not do international terrorism. AQAP certainly does, and it has tried to do it repeatedly against the United States. In the otherwise confused lines of conflict within Yemen, the Houthis and AQAP are each other's clearest enemies.

And the United States certainly does not have a good reason to take sides in sectarian conflicts in Yemen or anywhere else in the Muslim world.

Mistaken policies such as the U.S. posture toward Yemen will continue as long as U.S. policy is made in a domestic political climate in which prevailing sentiment automatically labels some foreign states as “allies” and others as practitioners of “nefarious” behavior, and insists that the United States always align itself with the former and always oppose anything having to do with the latter.              

TopicsYemen Iran Saudi Arabia RegionsMiddle East

This Is What Russia's Enemies in Syria Should Fear: The Su-24 Fencer

The Buzz

While the four Russian Su-34 Fullback bombers deployed to Syria are eye-catching, most of  the Russian air force’s long-range striking power in the region comes courtesy of the venerable Su-24M2 Fencer. Russia has deployed twelve of the distinctive twin-engine, variable geometry wing jets to its base in Latakia.

While the Fencer is an aged design that can trace its inception to the 1960s, Russia’s remaining fleet of Su-24s has been heavily upgraded with modern systems. The current version of the Fencer is equipped with GLONASS satellite navigation systems, an upgraded glass cockpit, a modern head-up display and an upgraded air-to-air self-defense capability with the addition of R-73 high off-boresight missiles.

The jet has also been provisioned to carry a wider range of precision-guided munitions. But while the Russian jet can be equipped with precision-guided weapons, according to U.S. Air Force officials—Russian forces don’t appear to be using such weapons. Instead the Russians appear to be mostly using unguided munitions according to Pentagon officials. Indeed, U.S. Air Force officials have gone on the recording saying so. “Those aren’t precision weapons,” U.S. Air Force intelligence chief Lt. Gen. Robert Otto told reporters on Thursday as quoted by TIME. “We can tell what’s hanging off the airplane.”

The Fencer can carry a maximum of 17,600lbs of ordnance, but usually carries only 6,600lbs in most configurations according to Sukhoi. The aircraft, which was designed to penetrate enemy airspace at low altitude, can hit targets as far as 400 miles away without aerial refueling while carrying six 1,100lbs FAB-500M-62 bombs (the plane does has aerial refueling capability). Nonetheless, the Fencers are likely flying more than just strike missions. The aircraft are probably being used for reconnaissance and other support missions, according to U.S. Navy officials.

With twelve aircraft available to them, the Russian air force should have between eight and ten Fencers available to them at any given time. If these Russians have surged enough resources to Latakia, the ten Su-24 could generate thirty sorties per day in a best-case scenario. But there are important unanswered questions—we don’t know how many pilots and maintenance crews the Russian forces brought with them. Moreover, many U.S. Air Force and Navy officials doubt that Russia brought enough support equipment with them. “It's unlikely that they have brought the support equipment with them that we do on our TSPs [theatre security packages], “ one Air Force official said. “It certainly isn't already in place in Latakia.”

The Russian air force will eventually replace aircraft with the Su-34, but the Fencer will remain in service for some time to come. It still offers the Russian forces in Syria a decent long-range strike capability against targets that are further away from Latakia.

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

Image: WikiCommons.

TopicsSecurity RegionsMiddle East

America and Russia in Syria: Superpower Showdown or Opportunity?

The Buzz

Reportedly, Washington and Moscow are working on ways to deconflict their tactical military operations within Syria in the aftermath of the Russian military’s arrival on the scene in recent weeks. That is good news. The last thing we need is to have two nuclear superpowers inadvertently, or even intentionally, shooting at each other in some quagmire in the Middle East.

But in another sense, of course, the two nations’ strategies for Syria are nowhere near deconflicted.

President Putin declared that his goal in Syria was to fight ISIL. His more plausible goal, as reflected in his military’s choice of initial bombing targets, is to uphold President Assad’s shaky hold on power by attacking closeby insurgents even if they are relatively moderate and unaffiliated with ISIL or al-Nusra.  Putin wants to protect his own proxies, retain Russian access to the naval facility along the Mediterranean coast at Tartus, and—most likely—embarrass the United States while demonstrating Russia’s global reach.  While undoubtedly concerned by ISIL at one level, he is unlikely to attempt to defeat it militarily, given the dangers and difficulties associated with any such mission.  He will leave that problem to us.  The fact that Assad has killed most of the quarter million who have died in this war to date, and caused most of the displacement and refugee flows as well, matters little to the callous Putin, who in any event probably blames American naivete more than any other factor for the fact that this war has dragged on for four and a half tragic years.

Yet Putin’s cynicism about this war may not preclude U.S.-Russian collaboration on a practical path forward. If we envision some type of Bosnia model for what we are trying to achieve in Syria and work backwards, it is at least possible that Russian and American objectives can be largely reconciled—or, to employ the word of the day, at least deconflicted.

In terms of American interests, we need to defeat ISIL and ultimately unseat Assad, while mitigating the humanitarian disaster befalling the country as fast as possible. Putin needs the containment of ISIL before its offshoots wind up in Moscow, as previous groups of jihadis have done over the years. Beyond that, he also wants to exercise Russian leverage and influence on the Middle East stage in a way that enhances national prestige. I would submit that most if not all of these objectives are at least in principle compatible.

A future Syria could be a confederation of several sectors—one mainly Alawite and largely along the Mediterranean coast; another Kurdish and along the north and northeast corridors of the country near the border with Turkey; a third possibly Druse, in the southwest; at least one more made up primarily of Sunni Muslims; and then finally a central zone of intermixed groups in the country’s main population belt from Damascus to Aleppo. The last zone would be difficult to stabilize but the others might not be so inherently problematic down the road.

With this arrangement, Assad would have to step down from power in Damascus eventually—but perhaps he could remain in the Alawite sector, as a compromise.  A weak central government would replace him, but most power and most of the country’s future armed forces would reside within the individual autonomous sectors (and belong to the various regional governments). ISIL would be targeted collectively by everyone. The whole thing would surely require international peacekeepers to hold together, once a deal was struck down the road. Russian troops could help with this mission along the Alawite region’s borders with other parts of the country, for example.

Getting to a point where such a deal was even possible would take time and great effort. Our training and equipping of moderate opposition forces would have to be expanded greatly.  Vetting standards would have to be relaxed in numerous ways.  Moreover, U.S. and other foreign trainers would need to deploy inside Syria to accelerate training where the would-be recruits actually live (and must stay, if they are to protect their families).

Those regions that could be accessed by international forces, starting perhaps with the Kurdish and Druse sectors, could receive humanitarian relief on a much expanded scale. Over time, the number of accessible regions would grow, as moderate opposition forces were strengthened.  This process could help reduce the scale of suffering, and refugee flows, right away—even if it would admittedly take a couple years for the overall strategy to have any real chance of succeeding.

But while it could take many months or years to achieve the outcome we want, articulation of this kind of vision now could provide a basis for working together with, or at least not working against, other key outside players in the conflict including Russia and Turkey and the Gulf states and Iraq. (I do not claim that it is realistic to collaborate with Iran—that would be a welcome surprise, but a major surprise, if it proved to be the case.)

Surely, the Russian intervention in this war was not well-motivated. In the short term, moreover, it has made things much more complicated. But if we use the occasion to recognize that current western strategy is inexorably failing in Syria, we may be able to find a better path forward that eventually finds more points of accord than disagreement between Moscow and Washington—and, more importantly, that meshes more realistically with current realities of power and politics inside this forlorn land.

Michael O’Hanlon is a senior fellow at Brookings, member of the Africa Security Initiative there, and author of the new book, The Future of Land Warfare.

Image: Creative Commons/Flickr. 

TopicsSecurity RegionsMiddle East

Russia Has Its Own 'A-10' Warthog in Syria: Enter the Su-25 Frogfoot

The Buzz

While top-of-the-line Sukhoi Su-30SM Flanker-H fighters and Su-34 Fullback bombers have captured the lion’s share of attention, the single most effective Russian aircraft deployed to Syria is the venerable Su-25 Frogfoot. The Russian air force has deployed a dozen of the slow, low-altitude flying tanks to its base in Latakia. But it’s not clear which version of the jet Russia has sent to Syria, however it’s probable that these are the latest Su-25SM version of the aircraft.

“The Russian air force will use the Frogfoots to support the Assad regime in the same way the USAF is using the A-10 Warthog to support the Iraqi government,” one veteran U.S. Air Force aviator told me. Another senior Air Force official agreed. “Frogfoots are the best air-to-ground platform for this type of fight for sure.”

The much-vaunted Su-34 Fullback bomber is not likely to play a significant role—four aircraft are just not enough. “Four jets are not enough to fly ‘sustained sorties,’ certainly not twenty-four hour ATO [Air Tasking Order] ops,” a third Air Force official said. “I'd guess that they are flying two-ship missions, hitting targets two to three times per day or night, tops. But... It's the Russians, so you never really know. “

The Su-30SM multirole fighter is not likely to play a significant role either—given their limited numbers and lack of a genuine mission. “The Su-30s are really an air-to-air platform so I could see them in an escort role,” the second Air Force official said.  “But, why would you need to escort your own fighters in a permissive environment?  ISIS doesn’t have any fighters of note… But the coalition does…”

That means most of the genuine combat operations will fall to the dozen Sukhoi Su-24 Fencer bombers and Su-25s. While the Su-24 is a good long-range battlefield interdiction aircraft, it is not particularly well suited for working closely with ground troops at “danger close” distances. However, the Su-25—like its American A-10 Warthog counterpart—was purpose-built as a close air support aircraft in the tradition of the Soviet Union’s much-venerated Ilyushin Il-2 Sturmovik from the Second World War.

Much like the Warthog—which the U.S. Air Force leadership is fighting tooth and nail to scrap—and the Sturmovik, the Frogfoot is an armored beast of an aircraft with an armored cockpit and multiple redundant systems. The Russian air force has upgraded dozens of Su-25s to the latest SM standard, which includes a glass cockpit, a GLONASS satellite navigation system and modern avionics that would allow for the use of precision-guided munitions. Eventually, the Russian air force will likely upgrade its entire Su-25 fleet since the Frogfoot still plays an important role in the service’s order of battle—as demonstrated by the Syrian deployment. Close air support has always been an important part of Russian and Soviet doctrine going back to the Second World War.

The aircraft has repeatedly proven itself supporting Russian ground forces fighting wars ranging from Afghanistan to the Georgian conflict in 2008. Nonetheless, because of the high-risk low-altitude missions Su-25 pilots fly, the Russians and other Frogfoot operators have lost many aircraft to ground fire—both to anti-aircraft artillery and surface-to-air missiles. ISIS does not have sophisticated air defenses, but it does have anti-aircraft artillery and it is likely that Russian aircrews will have to closely coordinate with Syrian regime ground forces while flying at low altitude. The presence of Syrian ground forces to identify targets should make Russian air strikes more effective—assuming Assad’s forces and the Russians can properly coordinate.

It would be a “safe bet” to assume that the Su-25 will bear the brunt of Russian combat sorties, according to one senior U.S. Navy aviator—especially given that twelve aircraft can maintain a decent sortie generation rate. U.S. forces are not likely to encounter the Frogfoot outside of Syria however. “I doubt the Russians will be flying their Frogfoots very far east,” a veteran Air Force pilot said.  “They'll likely be used only within 150 nautical miles of home station.”

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

TopicsSecurity RegionsMiddle East