The U.S. Navy's Latest Aircraft Carrier Will Be Delayed in Delivery

The U.S. Navy's Latest Aircraft Carrier Will Be Delayed in Delivery

The U.S. Navy has delayed by three months the delivery of the first Ford-class supercarrier. It's the latest setback for a high-tech new ship that's supposed to be the centerpiece of the Navy's future fleet, but which has proved to have serious design flaws.

 

The Navy can't afford many more delays with Ford. The sailing branch has proposed to decommission the 21-year-old Nimitz-class carrier USS Harry S. Truman in the early 2020s, just halfway through her planned service life, in order to free up billions of dollars for newer ships including Ford-class carriers.

The U.S. Navy has delayed by three months the delivery of the first Ford-class supercarrier. It's the latest setback for a high-tech new ship that's supposed to be the centerpiece of the Navy's future fleet, but which has proved to have serious design flaws.

 

(This first appeared last month.)

The delay also could weigh on the Navy's controversial proposal to decommission one older carrier decades earlier than the fleet previously had planned.

Citing problems with the new supercarrier's nuclear propulsion system and weapons elevators plus minor tweaks testers identified during Ford's post-construction shakedown cruise, James Geurts, the Navy's top acquisitions official, on March 26, 2019 told the U.S. House Armed Services Committee's seapower and projection forces subcommittee that Newport News Shipbuilding in Virginia would deliver Ford in October 2019 rather than in July.

"All three of those causal factors – making the adjustments to the nuclear power plant that we noted during sea trials, fitting in all of the post-shakedown availability workload and finishing up the elevators – they’re all trending about the same time," Geurts told the subcommittee.

"So, October right now is our best estimate. The fleet has been notified of that. They’re working that into their train-up cycle afterward."

The Ford class, in theory, represents a major improvement over the previous Nimitz-class supercarriers. The Navy so has ordered four Fords. Lead vessel Ford is supposed to deploy for the first time in 2022.

The Fords are bigger than the Nimitzs are, boast superior sensors and a more efficient deck layout and feature precise electromagnetic catapults rather than the maintenance-intensive steam catapults that the Nimitzs have.

But the new flattops are expensive. It cost $5 billion just to design the class. Ford cost $13 billion to build. That's roughly as much money at the Navy usually spends on new ships in an entire year.

Problems have vexed the program. The most high-profile failures have involved the Electromagnetic Launch System catapult, a new aircraft arresting system called the Advanced Arresting Gear, the weapons elevators that haul bombs and missiles from the munitions magazines to the deck and the ship’s primary sensor, the Dual Band Radar.

The issues with the propulsion system haven't widely been reported. "The problem isn’t resident in the two nuclear reactors aboard but rather the ship’s main turbines generators that are driven by the steam the reactors produce," USNI News reporter Sam LaGrone explained.

"Sources familiar with the extent of the repairs have told USNI News two of the main turbine generators needed unanticipated and extensive overhauls," LaGrone wrote. "As Geurts told Congress, the ship’s company discovered the problem during sea trials."

The Navy can't afford many more delays with Ford. The sailing branch has proposed to decommission the 21-year-old Nimitz-class carrier USS Harry S. Truman in the early 2020s, just halfway through her planned service life, in order to free up billions of dollars for newer ships including Ford-class carriers.

But decommissioning Truman would drop the carrier fleet to a low of nine vessels in the 2030s, despite a legal requirement for the Navy to operate at least 11 carriers at all times. If the fleet loses Truman and can't buy Fords fast enough owing to technical problems with the new ships, the carrier force could shrink even further.

Congress has questioned the Truman proposal and could force the Navy to continue operating the vessel in order to keep up carrier numbers. That move becomes more likely as Ford's problems pile up.

Rep. Rob Wittman, a Virginia Republican who sits on the House's seapower subcommittee, told Navy officials they shouldn't shrink the carrier fleet while the Chinese navy is growing its own force of flattops. China has one carrier in service and is building at least two more.

"Why would then we retire the Truman 25 years early in relation to the demands that we see around us and with our adversaries building carriers at a pretty brisk pace?" Wittman asked.

David Axe serves as Defense Editor of the National Interest. He is the author of the graphic novels  War FixWar Is Boring and Machete Squad.