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Hagel Told New Carrier Unlikely to Meet Aircraft Goals

USS Gerald R. Ford Aircraft Carrier
People gather for the christening ceremony of America's newest aircraft carrier, the USS Gerald R. Ford, at the Newport News Shipyard, November 9, 2013 in Newport News, Virginia. Photographer: David Hume Kennerly/Getty Images

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel was warned last month that the U.S. Navy’s new aircraft carrier, the most expensive warship ever built, is “unlikely” to meet its goal for handling aircraft.

The USS Gerald R. Ford’s “sortie generation” rate -- the ability to launch and recover aircraft -- is based on “unrealistic assumptions,” and key launching systems “are currently suffering from development problems and have poor or unknown reliability,” Pentagon Director of Operational Testing Michael Gilmore told Hagel in a Dec. 9 memo.

“I am transmitting this report to you because it deals with a high-visibility program, and it is likely Congress will request copies,” Gilmore wrote. He attached a 30-page report outlining his early “operational assessment” of the CVN-78 program, which calls for spending at least $40 billion to develop and build three carriers.

Huntington Ingalls Industries Inc., based in Newport News, Virginia, is the prime contractor on the carrier program, with Raytheon Co. providing radar systems and General Atomics handling the launch and recovery gear.

The Navy has said the new carrier promises about a 25 percent increase in sortie generation over the current Nimitz class. The Ford, already the most expensive warship ever built, is projected by the Navy to cost $12.8 billion in current dollars, 22 percent more than estimated five years ago. Adjusted for inflation, the cost is closer to $13.9 billion, said the Congressional Budget Office.

Increased Funding

“The memo will likely form part of the context for Congress’ consideration of the fiscal funding request for the CVN-78 program,” said Ronald O’Rourke, a naval analyst for the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service.

Navy program documents indicate that the service intends to request about $2.6 billion for the program next year, up about $1 billion from the current year’s request.

“The poor reliability” of “critical subsystems” -- such as the new electromagnetic catapult system, advanced arresting gear, dual-band radar and weapons elevators for moving munitions to the flight deck -- “will be the most significant risk” to the carrier’s success in combat testing and deployment, Gilmore said.

Both the assessment sent to Hagel and an upcoming annual report on weapons testing “highlight poor or uncertain reliability currently demonstrated by critical new technologies,” Gilmore spokeswoman Jennifer Elzea said in an e-mail statement.

Wartime Planning

A section of Gilmore’s report obtained by Bloomberg News said the Navy to date has “conducted limited reliability testing of these systems.”

“If the reliability problems” are not solved and “drive CVN-78’s sortie generation rate well below” that of the current Nimitz class carriers, “the result could be significant to strategic planners” assessing wartime needs, Gilmore wrote.

The Navy plans for Ford-class carriers to launch and recover 160 aircraft a day over a sustained period and 270 during a wartime surge; the Nimitz-class requirement is 120 a day and 192 during a surge.

Navy spokeswoman Commander Thurraya Kent said in an e-mailed statement: “I am unable to speculate on future reports.”

“Once a report is released, a more in-depth response can be made at that time,” Kent said. “Testing and evaluation contributes to the important data and analysis necessary to ensure our systems meet requirements.”

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