Senators Protest Delay in Survival Test for New Aircraft Carrier

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

Two of the U.S. Senate’s top lawmakers on defense policy are protesting a Navy decision to postpone for as long as seven years survival testing on its new class of aircraft carriers, the costliest warships ever built.

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain and ranking Democrat Jack Reed wrote March 31 to complain that delaying shock tests until the second vessel, which isn’t scheduled for delivery until 2022, while skipping them for the first adds “a great deal of risk in this program.”

Subjecting the first ship, the USS Gerald R. Ford, to “full ship shock trials” would generate data “to validate or improve” survivability, “thereby reducing the risk of injury to the crew and damage to or loss of a ship,” the lawmakers, who are both veterans, wrote the Pentagon’s chief weapons buyer Frank Kendall.

Deploying the first vessel “and potentially fighting without this testing gives us pause,” the lawmakers wrote.

In a shock trial of a ship, underwater explosions are set off to assess how well its systems can withstand them. The crew is on board, and the trial isn’t intended to damage equipment. The results are used to judge vulnerabilities and what design changes may be needed.

Kendall is scheduled to preside Wednesday over a Defense Acquisition Board meeting to review awarding a potential $4 billion construction contract to Huntington Ingalls Industries Inc. for the second carrier, the USS John F. Kennedy.

Maureen Schumann, a spokeswoman for Kendall, said in an e-mail that he received the letter and separate input from the Pentagon’s testing office. The matter will be considered during the review, she said.

Funding Questions

The bipartisan letter suggests that the program’s funding may be subject to restrictions as part of the Armed Services Committee’s fiscal 2016 defense spending bill. The Navy is requesting $2.5 billion next year for the carrier program, increasing to $3 billion in fiscal 2017 and totaling about $12 billion through 2020, according to the Navy’s new 30-year shipbuilding plan.

The Kennedy, the second vessel in the $43.2 billion carrier program, is to be delivered in early 2022. The Gerald R. Ford is set for delivery in a March 2016.

Commander Thurraya Kent, a Navy acquisition spokeswoman, said she couldn’t comment directly on the letter but said the service “is committed to delivering a survivable ship.”

The Navy’s previous use of modeling and simulations on the Ford to determine its vulnerabilities indicate that deferring the actual shock tests “outweigh the small technical risks,” she said.

Carrier Fleet

The Navy has told lawmakers the tests could cost as much as $60 million and take as long as six months.

The Navy is temporarily fielding 10 aircraft carriers instead of the 11 required by law, so declaring the Ford operational as soon a possible would restore the carrier fleet to full strength.

While McCain of Arizona and Reed of Rhode Island acknowledged the Navy’s view, they said the data generated by sea testing with a fully manned crew can’t be obtained “through computer modeling and component testing on machines or surrogates.”

Invaluable Testing

Shock tests have in the past proved invaluable, Michele Mackin, a director for acquisition for the U.S. Government Accountability Office, said in an e-mail.

“Doing this testing on the lead ship would enable decision makers to have a fuller understanding of any vulnerabilities and to correct design deficiencies earlier.”

The first carrier probably be deployed twice, and “quite possibly placed in harm’s way” before the shock testing on the second is completed, Major Eric Badger, a spokesman for the Pentagon’s testing office, wrote in an e-mail.

The Ford’s new technologies, such as Dual Band Radar, an electromagnetic launch system and a system for capturing landing aircraft, remain unproven against underwater shocks and “need to be tested as early as possible,” Badger said.

The Navy’s claims that the carrier is meeting or exceeding its key performance parameters aren’t supported by any meaningful data, Michael Gilmore, the Pentagon’s testing director, wrote Kendall Feb. 23.

Gilmore disputed the Navy’s claim that the Ford class’s survivability is “well understood,” and that the shock testing “does not substantially contribute to understanding” of the ship’s survivability.

“The requirement to conduct a shock trial on the first ship of a class was established in 1997,” Gilmore said.

If the carrier is tested and performs as the Navy claims, the process should take no more than three months, he wrote.

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