Aircraft Carrier USS Gerald Ford Plagued With Glitches, Cost Overruns

September 10, 2013 - 4:49 PM

USS Gerald Ford

U.S.S. Gerald Ford under construction in Newport News, Va. (U.S. Navy)

( –  Despite a 22 percent cost overrun, glitches found testing key weapons and radar systems on the U.S.S. Gerald Ford will require the Navy to enter its first new generation aircraft carrier into maintenance soon after its 2016 commissioning, according to a new report  by the Government Accountability Office (GAO). (See GAO 13-396.pdf)

The ship is the single most expensive piece of military equipment ever created, according to Business Insider.

“The Navy faces technical, design, and construction challenges to completing Gerald R. Ford that have led to significant cost increases and reduced the likelihood that a fully functional ship will be delivered on time,” concluded the GAO report, which was undertaken in response to a request by the Senate Armed Services Committee.

The Ford class of aircraft carriers will replace the Nimitz-class ships designed in the 1960s. The Navy plans to spend $43 billion on the three new aircraft carriers, which will be outfitted with advanced technologies “that are intended to create operational efficiencies while enabling higher sortie rates with reduced manpower compared to current carriers.”

The Ford class will include “a new electromagnetic aircraft launch system to propel aircraft off the ship”; an “advanced arresting gear to recover the aircraft”; an updated “anti-aircraft missile system;” “dual band radar, which integrates two radars operating on different frequency bands to provide air traffic control;” and other innovative technologies, including new propulsion, water generation and waste disposal systems.

“[The Navy] has elected to not adjust the construction schedule to compensate for these delays. As a result, the Navy and its shipbuilder are constructing [the aircraft carrier] with less knowledge about the ship’s critical technologies than it deemed appropriate at contract award in 2008,” the GAO report stated. The new aircraft carrier is not expected to be fully operational until 2019.

This is the first major change in aircraft carrier design since the 1950s, when the addition of jet fighters, nuclear-powered ships and surface-to-air missiles gave the U.S. Navy undisputed superiority on the high seas.

On August 12, India launched the INS Vikrant, becoming the fifth nation to build its own aircraft carrier besides the U.S., United Kingdom, Russia, and France. China’s first home-built carrier is currently under construction at the Jiangnan shipyard in Shanghai.

But problems with the U.S.S. Gerald Ford, which is more than halfway complete, are raising concerns about the Navy’s ability to deliver these “premier forward assets for crisis response....[and] early striking power during major combat operations.”

“That ship is now expected to cost $12.8 billion—a $1.3 billion increase since 2011. This cost growth has led to concerns about the Navy’s ability to deliver the three Ford-class aircraft carriers as planned and with the promised levels of capability,” the GAO report said.

“Cost growth could also place the Navy’s long-term shipbuilding plan at risk,” GAO noted, as the Navy must reduce its budget by $14 billion in the upcoming fiscal year as a result of the federal sequester.

Newport News Shipbuilding started building the U.S.S. Gerald Ford in 2009 after completing only three-quarters of the 3D computer modeling.

“In our work on shipbuilding best practices, we found that achieving design stability before start of fabrication is a key step that leading shipbuilders and ship buyers follow to ensure their vessels deliver on-time, within planned costs, and with planned capabilities,” GAO noted. Completing the 3D model over a year after construction began “leaves little margin to incorporate additional weight growth high up in the ship without making corresponding weight trade-offs elsewhere.”

Noting that “reliability metrics for the dual band radar were recently invalidated based on evolving analysis,” the report noted, “the Navy does not expect to resolve [these reliability shortfalls] until many years after commissioning.”

GAO concluded that launching the nuclear carrier before fully resolving existing problems with the radar and advanced weapons elevators “will limit the ship’s mission effectiveness during initial deployments and likely increase costs to the government.”.