Pres. Donald Trump used the Navy’s next-generation aircraft carrier, USS Gerald R. Ford, as a backdrop to unveil his vision for the next defense budget in March 2017.
The moment was meant to symbolize his commitment to rebuilding the military, but it also positioned the president in front of a monument to the Navy’s and defense industry’s ability to justify spending billions in taxypayer dollars on unproven technologies that often deliver worse performance at a higher cost.
The Ford program also provides yet another example of the dangers of the Navy’s and industry’s end-running the rigorous combat testing that is essential to ensuring our fighting men and women go to war with equipment that works.
The Navy had expected to have the ship delivered in 2014 at a cost of $10.5 billion. But the inevitable problems resulting from the concurrency the Navy built into developing Ford’s new and risky technologies, more than a dozen in all, caused the schedule to slip by more than three years and the cost to increase to $12.9 billion—nearly 25 percent over budget.
For all this time and money, “poor or unknown reliability of the newly designed catapults, arresting gear, weapons elevators, and radar, which are all critical for flight operations, could affect CVN-78’s ability to generate sorties, make the ship more vulnerable to attack or create limitations during routine operations.
The poor or unknown reliability of these critical subsystems is the most significant risk to CVN-78.”
EMALS catapult, failure to launch
The problems with the ship’s systems, including the catapult, are well-known. But Trump still caught virtually every Pentagon watcher off guard when, in the middle of a wide-ranging Time interview, he said he had directed the Navy to abandon the new “digital” aircraft catapult on future Ford-class carriers. Instead he wants the Navy to revert to the proven steam catapults, which have been in use for decades.
The president is correct when he says there are significant problems with the Ford’s “digital” catapult, but abandoning it in future ships will pose significant problems.
The Ford’s “digital” catapult is, in fact, the Electromagnetic Launch System, or EMALS. It was designed to provide the boost necessary for aircraft to reach take-off speed within the short deck length of an aircraft carrier. In the long run, it is intended to be lighter, more reliable and less expensive than the steam system.
Unfortunately, the EMALS is immature technology, and its development is proceeding concurrently with the ship’s design and development. So far, the program has not lived up to the promises made.
Steam-powered catapults, though said to be maintenance-intensive, are proven technology. They have been in service with continuous upgrades and satisfactory reliability for more than half a century. In this system, steam pressure pushes a piston down a track set into the deck of the ship.
The ship’s crew prepares the airplane for launch by attaching its nosewheel to a shuttle connected to the piston. When the steam valve opens, the pressure behind the piston accelerates the shuttle and plane down the track, reaching a speed high enough to allow aircraft to take off.
The steam to power the catapult is generated by the ship’s nuclear reactor main boiler, the same boiler that generates the steam for the propulsion turbines. That steam is piped from the boiler room to the catapults at the bow.
The new EMALS stores an enormous electrical charge — enough to power 12,000 homes three seconds, the time it takes to launch an aircraft — and then quickly releases the current into massive electromagnets that push the shuttle down the track.
The new electromagnetic catapult is intended to launch everything from small unmanned vehicles to heavy fighter planes. The Navy claims EMALS will save money over time because it is said to require less people to operate and is predicted to be easier to maintain.
But testing has already revealed the Navy underestimated the workload and the number of people necessary to operate the system. As a result, the Navy has to redesign some berthing areas to accommodate more people. It was also supposed to increase the lifespan of aircraft by putting less stress on their airframes by using a more controlled release of energy during a catapult launch.
Unfortunately, recent tests of land-based EMALS prototypes showed that the system actually overstressed F-18 airframes during launch.
Perhaps even more serious is that the design makes it impossible for the crew to repair a catapult while the ship is launching planes with other catapults. This is done as a matter of routine on current carriers as each catapult operates independently of the other. When one of the steam catapults fails, the crew can make the necessary repairs while the adjacent catapults continue launching planes.
Like earlier carriers, Ford has four launch catapults so that — theoretically — should one fail, the ship could continue operations using the remaining three. But the Navy found there is no way to electrically isolate each EMALS catapult from the others during flight operations, raising questions about the system’s operational suitability.
The massive electrical charge needed to power the catapults is stored in three Energy Storage Groups, each using four heavy flywheel-generators. The three groups together power all four catapults and cannot be electrically disconnected from a single failed catapult to allow repairs while the other three catapults launch planes.
This means that repairing the failed catapult must wait until all flight operations have been completed, or, in the event that multiple launchers fail, all flights may have to be suspended to allow repairs. Thus there is the possibility that the ship might not be able to launch any planes at a critical moment because the EMALS designers failed to provide independent power for each of the four catapults.
This problem is particularly acute because the EMALS has a poor reliability track record. The system thus far fails about once every 400 launches. This might seem like a reasonable record, but it is 10 times worse than the 4,166 launches between failures the system is supposed to achieve per the contract specifications.
At least four days of surge combat sortie rates are to be expected at the beginning of any major conflict — and delivering those sorties is, after all, the primary reason carriers are built in the first place. At the current failure rate, there is only a seven-percent chance that the USS Ford could complete a four-day flight surge without a launch failure, according to the office in charge of testing the ship, the Director of Operational Test and Evaluation.
The decision to pursue immature EMALS technology has been a boon to contractors, particularly San Diego-based General Atomics. With only a nuclear fusion magnetics background and no previous experience in carrier catapults, the company won the EMALS System Development and Demonstration contract on April 2, 2004. At the time, the contract was valued at $145 million.
This figure has predictably ballooned over the years as risky, concurrent technology programs tend to do. The most recent figures released by the Pentagon’s Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation office show the Navy will have spent approximately $958.9 million simply to develop this one component — and more may well be required to correct current deficiencies.
The cost to build and install an EMALS system — four catapults — is another thing entirely. In January, 2017, the Navy awarded General Atomics another $532 million contract to install the system on the third-in-class Ford-class carrier, Enterprise.
And although EMALS is problem-ridden and enormously expensive, replacing it with the proven steam catapult substitute would likely be more so. Using the steam catapult instead is impossible without a complete redesign of the nuclear reactor plant’s steam generating system. Because the Navy planned Ford to be an electric ship, the reactor was not designed to produce service steam for major ship systems.
So the reactor now can’t deliver the 4,050 pounds per minute of high pressure steam required by a steam-powered four-catapult installation. Furthermore, installing four new steam-powered catapult tracks would require a complete redesign and rebuilding of the supporting deck structure. The cost of both would be staggering and the delay may be upwards of two to three years.
AAG arresting system
Of course, launching a fighter jet over the bow of the carrier is only one part of the equation. The jets also need to land, which is another very large challenge on a moving ship. Aircraft don’t really land on a ship. They essentially crash in a highly controlled fashion. Instead of rolling out to a stop on a conventional runway, a plane landing on an aircraft carrier has to catch a cable on the flight deck with a hook attached to the plane to bring it to a stop on the relatively short deck.
As it did with the catapult, the Navy decided to use unproven technology for Ford’s electrical arresting system to capture aircraft during landings. This system, too, has been more of a challenge than the Navy expected. “With the benefit of hindsight, it was clearly premature to include so many unproven technologies,” the Pentagon’s top weapons-buyer Frank Kendall wrote in an August 2016 memo.
Navies around the world have been using arresting systems for more than a century to land aircraft on ships. The Navy installed its first system, consisting of sandbags and cables, on USS Pennsylvania in 1911. The Navy currently uses a hydraulically braked arresting system called the Mk. 7 on the current Nimitz-class aircraft carriers.
When the hook on the landing aircraft catches one of the cables on the deck, the cables are braked by an engine inside the ship. In effect a very large shock absorber, this engine is a plunger inside a cylinder filled with hydraulic fluid. When pulled by the deck cable, the plunger compresses the fluid which then flows through a metered valve calibrated to handle the weight of the type of aircraft being landed. The compressed fluid absorbs the energy of the landing and brings the aircraft to a stop in only 340 feet.
This hydraulic arresting gear system has been in use since 1961 and has been improved several times over the years. But as a high-tech selling point, it’s a non-starter. In order to get increased funding for the Ford program, the Navy chose to replace the proven hydraulics with an entirely new and untested electrical system, called the Advanced Arresting Gear.
The original 2005 estimate for AAG development alone was $172 million. This figure was revised upwards in 2009 to $364 million, and has now ballooned to well over $1.3 billion, an astounding 656 percent increase.
The AAG is also built by General Atomics, and, as with the EMALS, the company doesn’t have any prior arresting gear experience. The AAG is based on a “Water Twister,” a paddlewheel inside a cylinder of water. When spun by the pull of the deck cable, the paddlewheel uses the resistance of the water to absorb 70 percent of the energy of the landing plane and bring it to a stop — with fine-tuning of additional braking forces provided by a very large electric motor. At least that is how it is supposed to work.
The Department of Defense Inspector General concluded in a July 2016 report that the entire program has been mismanaged.
“Ten years after the program entered the engineering and manufacturing development phase, the Navy has not been able to prove the capability or safety of the system to a level that would permit actual testing of the system on an aircraft carrier.”
Test personnel found damage due to insufficient strength of several subcomponents inside the water twister following developmental tests in 2012. The water twister required two years of “significant redesign.” The revised prototype passed land-based dead load tests two years later. The first aircraft tests, also land-based, occurred in 2016.
Separately from the twister failures, earlier failed tests revealed damage to the AAG’s cable shock absorber that the Navy attributed to the design’s complexity. This problem was also reportedly corrected.
Nevertheless, the latest reliability results show only 25 landings between operational mission failures of the AAG, 660 times fewer than the Navy’s requirement of 16,500. This makes it utterly impossible for Ford to meet its surge sortie rate requirements. And, in an astonishing design oversight exactly like that of the EMALS, General Atomics engineers made it impossible to repair AAG failures without shutting down flight operations — the AAG power supply can’t be disconnected from the high-voltage supply while flights continue.
Even after spending an estimated $1.3 billion, the ability to correct the AAG’s dangerous unreliability remains so uncertain that the Navy cannot yet commit to a schedule for actual at-sea testing of Ford.
Problems with the AAG are so bad that the Department of Defense asked the Navy to study shelving the idea completely for the follow-on ships in favor of an enhanced version of the proven Mk. 7 system currently in service.
However, recommending to drop the AAG after spending $1.3 billion would have been a major admission of failure. Unsurprisingly, the Navy decided to stick with the AAG and push forward with plans to install it aboard the second Ford-class ship, John F. Kennedy.
That decision may get overturned now that the Navy has had to report the AAG program’s costs exceed its 2009 estimate by at least 50 percent, triggering an automatic review. This is called a “Nunn-McCurdy” breach, named after the 1982 law that requires the Pentagon to review major weapon programs when their costs rise above certain levels.
If a program’s cost estimates increase more than 50 percent, the program is supposed to be automatically cancelled unless the Secretary of Defense certifies the program as critical to national defense.
Of course it is extremely rare for any program to actually be cancelled by such means. The AAG will likely provide further proof of Fitzgerald’s First Law of defense acquisition. “There are only two phases of a program. The first is, ‘It’s too early to tell.’ The second: ‘It’s too late to stop.'”
Aircraft carriers require a lot of power. Earlier carriers used nuclear reactor-generated steam to drive two of the most power-hungry systems on board — the steam turbines that turn the propellers and the steam catapults that launch the planes.
The Ford-class ships retained steam turbines for propulsion, but rather than piping steam from the reactors to power major ship systems directly, it uses steam to turn four main turbine generators to generate electricity for the systems like the new electromagnetic catapults. Generating and managing the massive amount of electricity the ship needs has been a significant contributor to its budget and schedule troubles.
To feed these massive electrical demands, as well as the ship’s expanded electronics, the Ford’s four generators were designed to provide triple the total electrical power provided by the eight generators on the Nimitz class — 13,800 versus 4,160 volts.
These new ultra-high voltages pose substantial risks such as increased safety problems and increased electrical arcing and failure rates, particularly in humid salt atmospheres. They are also much more fragile than legacy systems, which can make the ship far easier to cripple in battle. Repairing damage to these systems often requires them to be powered down, which could impact other systems that didn’t sustain damage.
The possibility that these risks could require substantial ship modification or render Ford unsuitable for combat cannot be assessed until the completion of operational testing in 2020.
The Ford-class ships will be equipped with two newly developed Bechtel-built A1B nuclear reactors that together will generate approximately 25 percent more total thermal power and 300 percent more electrical power than Nimitz’s A4B reactors. In the hopes of reducing the reactor operating manpower by two-thirds, the new reactors will halve the control valves, pumps, and piping and will be far more dependent on control automation than legacy reactors.
The relatively inflexible automation and grossly reduced manning may significantly reduce Ford’s ability to operate and survive in the face of battle damage. This is a problem inherent in the quest for strict efficiency. Because of the reduced manning, fewer people are available to fix problems in the event of battle damage. But the full implications of the risk cannot be assessed until operational testing is finished.
Underlining the risks of the inability to deal with battle damage associated with automation and ultra-high voltages, Ford suffered a small electrical explosion on one of the four new MTGs in June 2016. The explosion threw debris into the turbine and sent smoke billowing throughout the ship. This incident was quickly followed in July by another similar event in a second MTG. A Navy investigation showed that both explosions were caused by faulty voltage regulators.
Fixing the damage is expected to cost approximately $37 million. As a temporary fix to prevent yet more delays to commissioning and in order to resume testing, the rotors inside both generators were removed and replaced. But, according to the Navy, MTG No. 2 will have to complete additional “full repairs” when the ship is in the post-shakedown phase, after it is commissioned.
These full repairs may be quite extensive. The Navy says the MTG can be repaired in place by replacing the unit’s rotors, but this will only happen during the post-shakedown overhaul period after Ford’s commissioning.
This means that Ford will be commissioned and put into active service with only a temporarily repaired electrical system. It will then have to return to the shipyard to undergo major generator repair work before plane launch and recovery tests can even commence.
All of these systems have yet to be pitted against perhaps the biggest testing challenge any new Navy ship must face — Full Ship Shock Trials. These critical tests discover whether each new ship class is suitable for combat, and occur when the fully kitted-out ship heads out to sea with its crew.
Explosives are detonated underwater in relatively close proximity to the ship in order to learn if the ship’s systems are sufficiently hardened to carry out missions in the rigors of combat conditions, and if the crew would be able to rapidly identify and fix any problems that resulted during those conditions.
The Navy first identified the need for such testing in World War II. It was observed that several newly designed ships were rendered useless because of “inadequate shock proofing of the ship systems” when mines or torpedoes merely exploded nearby.
Since then, the Navy has required that shock hardness be “designed and engineered into ship platforms, aircraft and shipboard interface systems, ordnance and related equipment.” The official Navy instructions for ship-hardening lists 16 mission-essential systems that must continue functioning after a shock event, including propulsion, navigation and communications.
Thousands of components are put to the test. During shock trials for the Arleigh Burke-class destroyers, for instance, 4,460 unique components were monitored.
Navy rules used to require the first-in-class ship to go through shock trials. Despite the obvious importance of verifying shock-hardening, the Navy changed its rules in 2013. Now the Program Executive Officer for each ship class may select the first-in-class ship “or an early ship of each shock hardened class that shall be subjected to the shock validation process as part of post-delivery test and trials when required.”
The timing of the rule change is important within the context of Ford and the subsequent ships in her class — on June 18, 2012, the Navy attempted to abandon its plans to conduct Full Ship Shock Trials on the Ford, claiming that deferring the tests to a later ship was justifiable because components like the EMALS and AAG were shock hardened by design.
Instead, the Navy announced its intention to conduct the shock trials on Kennedy. The Navy altered the testing plan while its own instructions still mandated the tests be conducted on the lead ship. It wasn’t until eight months later that the Navy issued its new instructions regarding shock trials.
The Navy met with resistance on the change of plans for the Ford from the DOT&E, which disapproved Ford’s Test and Evaluation Master Plan. The plan didn’t sit well with the two senior members of the Senate Armed Services Committee, either. Senators John McCain and Jack Reed both objected, saying that sending the ship out to sea before the tests “and potentially fighting without this testing gives us pause.”
In the end, Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work, under pressure from SASC, overruled the Navy and ordered Ford to undergo shock trials, saying the tests “will be conducted to ensure the survivability of the CVN-78 design is understood prior to beginning operational deployments.”
It is particularly important that Ford go through early shock testing because of its multiple new, high-risk systems, all of them critical to the carrier mission but particularly susceptible to shock and battle damage. These vulnerable, unproven systems include the highly automated A1B nuclear reactor, the EMALS catapults, the AAG arresting gear, the ultra-high 13,800-volt electrical distribution system, the dual-band radar and the new main turbine generators.
Postponing the test to the second ship in class is fraught with risks and potential costs. Had the Navy’s change in plans gone unchallenged, the shock trials to confirm whether the ship’s design could operate successfully in combat conditions likely wouldn’t be completed until 2025. The Navy would run the risk of sending the $13-billion Ford with 4,300 crew members into a situation where a single close-proximity explosion could render it useless and vulnerable to being sunk.
Moreover, if the tests reveal fundamental design problems when they are finally completed, the Navy would have to engage in an expensive retrofit of Kennedy and Ford. In fact, by the time the deferred tests would take place, construction of the third-in-class ship, Enterprise, would be well underway and it, too, would need expensive retrofitting.
The decision to test Ford as originally required was a clear — though unfortunately reversible — victory for long-time advocates of realistic combat and live-fire testing. The whole saga is a clear example of how and why the services and contractors work to thwart the testing process.
The MITRE Corporation, a federally funded research and development center, published a report titled Navy Ship Underwater Shock Prediction and Testing Capability Study that found service officials and contractors with an interest in rushing ships into full scale production — namely, the concurrency advocates — often want to avoid this kind of realistic combat testing.
“Shock trials cost time and money, and [Full Ship Shock Trials] occurs at exactly the time where there is the least incentive to go back to the drawing board to fix any issues that arise.”
Certainly, until the trials are completed, DoD officials and Congress need to maintain vigilant oversight to ensure the ship’s combat suitability is properly tested and evaluated before it enters service.
Actual utility of aircraft carriers
And then there is the overarching matter of the actual relevance of aircraft carriers in the future. Plenty of frank commentators have questioned in recent years whether the day of the supercarrier has passed. The wisdom of investing such a large amount of capital into a single weapon system deserves scrutiny.
There is the basic matter of battlespace economics. Ford costs nearly $13 billion so far. In a few years, she will likely carry a complement of at least 50 F-35Cs. Conservatively, each aircraft will have a real cost of $185 million … for a total of $9.25 billion worth of strike aircraft concentrated on one ship.
That means this one ship when underway will be worth at least $22.25 billion, to say nothing of the 4,297 sailors on board. That is putting a great deal of proverbial eggs in a single basket.
Closely related is the economics of fleet size. Even within a reasonably growing budget, it is impossible to expand the fleet while buying four or more carriers at $13 billion a pop, each with $9 billion of fighters aboard. The Congressional Budget Office estimates the Navy would need a budget increase of one-third to achieve its current shipbuilding goals. To persist in buying four Ford-class carriers guarantees that the fleet will continue shrinking for years to come.
Supercarriers and the vessels that accompany them in the Carrier Strike Groups do carry a great deal of destructive power, at least against fixed land targets and ships that are not too heavily defended. But, simultaneously, they are very large and costly targets.
The United States currently has 10 such carrier groups, but because of the heavy maintenance and crew training required to keep them operating, only a few can be at sea at any one time. This doesn’t provide the United States with a great deal of redundancy.
For this reason alone the president and the theater commanders will be forced to limit their carrier demands in order to husband this precious resource. Today the Navy’s carriers are almost constantly in the news as presidents use them as a symbol of strength anytime there is a potential hot spot around the world. They have become, in effect, a very expensive version of gunboat diplomacy.
Only recently, when the North Koreans renewed threats to conduct nuclear missile tests, the Trump administration ordered a carrier strike group towards the peninsula. This is relatively easy to do, so long as there is little risk that the waters will be contested.
Presidents and theater commanders will likely be far less interested in positioning these same ships where they may be within reach of a potential adversary’s forces. And because other nations see the Navy’s carriers as a centerpiece of American military power projection, for at least half a century potential adversaries have been developing and deploying weapons to keep U.S. aircraft carriers from getting close enough to their coasts to bomb their territory.
Their most important and effective anti-carrier weapons continue to be diesel subs, sea-skimming high-speed anti-ship missiles and mines, all of which are deployed in sizable numbers by every nation with a threatened coast line, particularly Russia, China, North Korea and Iran.
Most potential adversaries have impressively large fleets of diesel-electric subs — North Korea has approximately 70. China has approximately 50. Russia has 18 plus 22 nuclear attack submarines. And even Iran has 20. Clearly, they decided years ago that subs would be their best bet for neutralizing or sinking American carriers.
Thirty years of Navy fleet exercise results bear them out:
To put it simply, if naval exercises in the last two decades involving foreign diesel-electric submarines had been actual combat, most if not all, U.S. aircraft carriers would be at the bottom of the ocean: as many as 10 U.S. aircraft carriers have been reported ‘sunk’ in these exercises.
The analytically conservative Congressional Budget Office was alarmed enough to officially report that ‘some analysts argue that the Navy is not very good at locating diesel-electric submarines, especially in noisy, shallower waters near coastal areas. Exercises with allied navies that use diesel-electric submarines confirm that problem …
[For example,] Israeli diesel-electric submarines, which until recently were relatively old, are said to always ‘sink’ some of the large and powerful warships of the U.S. Sixth Fleet in exercises. And most recently, an Australian Collins-class submarine penetrated a U.S. carrier battlegroup and was in a position to sink an aircraft carrier during exercises off Hawaii in May 2000.’
There have been many such exercise ‘sinkings’ since then, including aircraft carriers Reagan and Lincoln.
A carrier threat even more proliferated than diesel subs is the sea-skimming anti-ship missile. Essentially every potential US adversary has substantial quantities of these in versions launched from patrol boats, warships, jet fighters, truck launchers, subs and even merchant ships.
Extremely hard to detect because they fly at 15 to 50 feet above the ocean’s highly radar-reflective waves, many carry more punch than the largest battleship cannons. And, because of their multiple launch platforms, they are a threat to carrier task forces from well beyond the carrier’s maximum strike radius of 500 miles.
For nearly half a century Russia and China have been continuously developing and selling all over the world an ever-increasing variety of these anti-ship cruise missiles. Widely deployed in large numbers today by Russia, China, Iran and possibly North Korea are the Mach-2.3 3M80 Moskit with a range of 90 to 150 miles and the newer, lower flying Mach-2.9 Club 3M54 with a range of 150 to 410 miles.
The Navy’s few and less-than-stressful operational tests of the Aegis defensive systems protecting our carriers provide no assurance that our carriers can survive and operate under anti-ship missile attack:
Against the most difficult targets — traveling at supersonic speeds at very low, sea-skimming altitudes — the test results were, to put it mildly, depressing.
In tests using surrogates that were both slower and higher than the Mach 2 Soviet SS-N-22 Sunburn [the NATO name for the Moskit] missile, it was clear that the Aegis system could not be relied on for an effective defense of itself or aircraft carriers it was escorting. …
More than one director of the Operational Test and Evaluation (DOT&E) shop in the Pentagon has expressed serious concern that the Navy has not even been able to replicate the Sizzler [the NATO name for the Club] in tests.
No matter what kind of missile is being used, it makes much more economic sense to defend against an aircraft carrier than to build one. Anti-ship cruise missiles cost from $750,000 to $3 4 million, depending on range and guidance. Anti-ship ballistic missiles may cost from $10 to $20 million each. Hitting what amounts to a relatively small target in a big ocean is a challenge, but the odds of doing so increase with each missile and torpedo fired at the carrier.
Since missiles and torpedoes cost significantly less than the carrier and its planes, a determined foe would likely do everything in its power to launch a saturation attack meant to overwhelm the defensive systems of the carrier strike group to increase the chance of getting just one to impact the ship and at least cripple flight operations. Sinking $22.25 billion with $1 million — or even with $20 million — is a good return on investment.
Some in the Navy have advocated for smaller, far less expensive carriers. Another, perhaps better, alternative is to build far less expensive carriers without making them smaller by eliminating nuclear propulsion and returning to austere electronics and weaponry. Either alternative would allow the Navy to increase the size of the fleet.
A larger number of less expensive carriers would allow more carriers on station, more diverse stationing, and less of the excessive wear and tear on people and materiel due to overly long deployments.
Others argue that the right approach is to devote more resources to a larger undersea fleet. Submarines are much more capable of surviving the coastal missile defenses an enemy will field. Their cruise missiles can execute deep strikes, at least against fixed targets.
The current nuclear submarine fleet is very expensive — the latest Virginia-class nuclear attack submarine, for instance, costs $2.4 billion — but advances in Air Independent Propulsion systems are rivaling the performance of the nuclear fleet and at $200 million to $900 million, AIP boats cost a fraction of their nuclear counterparts.
The Ford-class carrier program is in much deeper trouble than the Navy and the DoD are willing to admit. As further testing reveals further serious deficiencies, cost overruns will balloon and promised combat capabilities will shrink.
There is the very real possibility that, as currently configured, Ford will prove to be unsuitable for combat because the EMALS catapults or the AAG arresting gear might be unreliable at sea under surge conditions or because the reactor and electrical system might not function in the face of battle damage. Or, worse, because of all of the above.
If the AAG fails operational tests, it can be replaced with the legacy Mk. 7 hydraulic arresting gear—though the retrofit will be painfully expensive and may delay the program by a year or more. If the EMALS fails operational tests, installing a steam catapult substitute would require an extensive redesign of the entire ship.
To avoid these disastrous consequences, it is inevitable that the Navy’s Ford program management and its contractors will expend maximum effort on weakening and delaying the overall operational tests — and on abrogating the most crucial ones. If the Secretary of Defense and Congress do not act vigorously to protect the current operational test plan and schedule, the taxpayer will have spent at least $44 billion to buy three carriers that are likely to fare worse in combat than existing carriers and that in wartime will jeopardize the lives of the nearly 4,300 sailors aboard each carrier.
There’s a near-certainty that upcoming testing of Ford will require major redesign and retrofits to it, and corresponding design changes for Kennedy and Enterprise. To avoid further wasteful retrofits, the schedule for these second and third ships needs to slowed down and the plans for the as-yet unnamed fourth ship, CVN-81, should be put on complete hold until the final IOT&E report is released, currently scheduled for Fiscal Year 2020.
Commensurate with the needed slowdown, the $1.29 billion and $1.37 billion requested in 2017 for Kennedy and Enterprise, respectively, should be reduced — perhaps halved — and the savings reapplied to fully funding the most crucial and urgently needed developmental and operational tests as recommended by DOT&E: the shock tests, the live-fire ship vulnerability tests, the sortie generation tests and simulation, the Dual Band Radar multiple target tracking and traffic-control tests and the EMALS and AAG reliability tests.
The appalling mismanagement and avoidable major failures of the Ford program are due to exactly the same three causes as the equivalently disastrous mismanagement and failures of the Littoral Combat Ship program:
-dearth of in-house technical expertise — badly needed to prevent major contractor design engineering mistakes — due to 20 years of deliberate outsourcing;
-deliberate incorporation within the design requirements of unproven, high-risk major systems as selling points to justify large new acquisition programs and
-deliberate scheduling of maximum concurrency between design and development, prototyping, engineering tests, operational tests and full-scale production, all in the interest of cancellation-proof program funding.
Unless the Navy moves — or is forced by DoD and Congress — to expunge these three guarantors of program failure, the taxpayer can expect future major Navy system procurements to have outcomes at least as disappointingly delayed, wastefully expensive and dangerously combat-ineffective as the Ford-class carrier.