Navy Delays Carrier’s Combat Tests, Weapons Tester Says

Gerald Ford Carrier May Have $1.1 Billion Overrun
The aircraft carrier USS Gerald R. Ford is shown in an artist's rendition. The completed initial vessel, the first of three in the $40.2 billion program, is projected to cost at least $11.5 billion. Source: Huntington Ingalls

The U.S. Navy is inappropriately delaying or scaling back $70 million in needed combat testing of the USS Gerald R. Ford, an aircraft carrier that may cost $14.2 billion, in the name of cutting costs, according to the Pentagon’s top weapons tester.

A test that would “rigorously evaluate the ship’s ability to withstand shock and survive in combat” would be postponed until a second carrier in the new Ford class is built and may not be completed for seven years, Michael Gilmore, the Defense Department’s director of operational test and evaluation, told Navy Secretary Ray Mabus in a July 12 memo obtained by Bloomberg News.

Gilmore’s objections add to criticism of the carriers for their increasing price tag as well as their potential vulnerability to rival militaries with expanding arsenals of ballistic and cruise missiles, undersea mines, submarines, drones and cyber weapons.

“I recognize the need to expend resources wisely for all purposes, including testing, in the existing constrained fiscal environment,” Gilmore said in the memo. “I consider these test costs well-justified, particularly when considered in the context of the $27.8 billion cost to design and build the first three of these new carriers, clearly one of the most expensive combat systems the department has ever acquired.”

Once they’re fully equipped, the three carriers may cost $42.5 billion. The price tag for the Ford, the first carrier in the class being built by Huntington Ingalls Industries Inc., based in Newport News, Virginia, has climbed about 18 percent in four years to $12.3 billion, according to Defense Department data.

Independent Office

The Congressional Budget Office estimates the final cost will be closer to $14.2 billion. The new carriers, the Navy’s costliest vessels, will rise 20 stories above the water, be 1,092 feet (333 meters) long and move at 30 knots (35 miles per hour) with almost 5,000 Americans on board.

Congress created Gilmore’s office in 1983 to independently oversee weapons testing, including approving test plans or disapproving them as needed. His office can influence spending on weapons programs by rejecting plans, taking its concerns to Congress or senior Pentagon officials, or finding that a weapon is ineffective or can’t be maintained.

The dispute centers on the Navy’s decision to change the agreed-upon test plan for the first carrier in the class without Gilmore’s approval. The Navy wants to shift “full ship shock trial” evaluations to the John F. Kennedy, the second carrier, in the move Gilmore says would delay conducting the tests and gathering needed data for five to seven years.

Rescinding Approval

The tests, estimated to cost about $60 million, are designed to evaluate a ship’s ability to perform its mission after absorbing repeated shock waves from underwater explosions using live ammunition detonated at a distance.

Gilmore rescinded approval of the test plan on July 12 and that decision remains in place, he said in an e-mail through his spokeswoman Cheryl Irwin. Gilmore also said he has informed Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s staff of his concerns.

Gilmore said in the e-mail that the delay “is not appropriate” because the tests “provide information key to assuring a ship’s survivability in combat.”

Captain Cate Mueller, a Navy spokeswoman, said in an e-mailed statement that “the Navy and test office are committed to providing the most capable and survivable carrier.” The service’s differences with Gilmore “are in the technical aspects and phasing of the shock trials,” she said.

‘High-Cost Event’

Conducting the full shock test “is a high-cost event with schedule impact,” she said. The Navy also has been under pressure due to environmental impact concerns “to identify alternative means to validate ship shock design,” Mueller said.

The Ford carrier’s hull form “has been subject to extensive survivability modeling and simulation, robust equipment and system component testing,” she said, and the Navy’s decision to delay the full shock testing “is fully consistent with past practices for new ship classes.”

Gilmore wrote Mabus that postponing the full shock tests until they can be performed on the Kennedy “would preclude timely modification of subsequent ships of this class to ensure survivability.”

Conducting the tests on the first ship as originally planned would cause about a two-month delay in fielding the carrier, according to Gilmore.

“The data to be gained and risk mitigated are, in my view, clearly valuable enough to justify this delay,” Gilmore wrote Mabus.

Survivability Trials

Gilmore wrote Mabus that he also disagreed with a second Navy decision that would “limit the scope” of “total ship survivability trials” on the first carrier. These tests, at an estimated cost of $10 million, are designed to demonstrate the ability of the ship and crew to control damage resulting from simulated anti-ship weapons and continue fighting.

“I cannot accept elimination of key and essential survivability analyses,” including proposals to eliminate analysis of the carrier’s machinery spaces, “simply to satisfy budget reductions,” Gilmore said.

The Navy’s carrier test plans seem similar to the “bind we find ourselves in” with the F-35 being built by Lockheed Martin Corp., Thomas Christie, a former director of Pentagon testing from 2001 to 2005, said in an e-mail this week. The Joint Strike Fighter is the Pentagon’s costliest weapon.

“We will have procured several hundred aircraft prior to the completion of testing, all of which may require substantial fixes and modification -- acquisition ‘malpractice’ as described by a senior official,” Christie said.

In addition to disagreeing with the Navy’s carrier test schedule, Gilmore said in February that the Navy lacks a target needed to check its defenses against China’s new DF-21D ballistic missile, which is designed to attack aircraft carriers.

The Navy has an “immediate need” for a test missile able to replicate the DF-21D’s trajectory as it descends, Gilmore said in his annual report.

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