• USS Gerald Ford’s key systems have reliability issues
  • Aircraft launch and delivery systems may need to be redesigned

The U.S. Navy’s newest aircraft carrier isn’t ready for warfare.

The $12.9 billion USS Gerald R. Ford -- the most expensive warship ever built -- may struggle to launch and recover aircraft, mount a defense and move munitions, according to the Pentagon’s top weapons tester. On-board systems for those tasks have poor or unknown reliability issues, according to a June 28 memo obtained by Bloomberg News.

Christening ceremony of the USS Gerald R. Ford, on Nov. 9, 2013.
Christening ceremony of the USS Gerald R. Ford, on Nov. 9, 2013.
Photographer: David Hume Kennerly/Getty Images

“These four systems affect major areas of flight operations,” Michael Gilmore, the Defense Department’s director of operational test and evaluation, wrote Pentagon and Navy weapons buyers Frank Kendall and Sean Stackley. “Unless these issues are resolved, which would likely require redesigning” of the aircraft launch and recovery systems “they will significantly limit the CVN-78’s ability to conduct combat operations,” Gilmore wrote, using a technical name for the carrier.

More Delays

The reliability woes mean that delivery of the Ford -- the first of three carriers ordered up in a $42 billion program -- will probably slip further behind schedule. The Navy announced last week that the ship, originally due by September 2014, wouldn’t be delivered before November this year because of continuing unspecified testing issues.

The service has operated 10 carriers since the retirement of the USS Enterprise in 2012. Extended deployments of the remaining ships have placed stress on crews and meant added strain meeting global commitments from the battle against Islamic State to ensuring freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, home to $5 trillion in annual trade.

A prolonged delay could also hamper the military if a new conflict arises.

“Based on current reliability estimates, the CVN-78 is unlikely to conduct high-intensity flight operations” such as a requirement for four days of 24-hour surge operations “at the outset of a war,” Gilmore wrote.

As delivery of the Huntington Ingalls Industries Inc. vessel approaches, “my concerns about the reliability of these systems remain and the risk to the ship’s ability to succeed in combat grows as these reliability issues remain unresolved,” Gilmore said.

‘Unacceptable’ Delays

Republican Senator John McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, called the Navy’s announcement of additional delays last week “unacceptable,” adding that it was a “case study in why our acquisition system must be reformed.” 

A Navy spokeswoman, Lieutenant Kara Yingling, said the Navy was aware of the report but referred additional comment to Kendall’s office. Kendall spokesman Mark Wright said in an e-mail "we don’t feel it is appropriate to release our response to this internal memo.”

The Navy has said that Newport News, Virginia-based Huntington Ingalls is performing well as the shipbuilder. Many of the technologies installed on the first-of-class carrier are produced by other companies. As of last month, the ship’s construction was 98 percent complete, the Navy said. Huntington Ingalls has turned over 97 percent of the carrier’s compartments and 89 percent of shipboard testing is completed, the Navy said.

Ship Trials

The Navy plans to deploy the Ford by 2021 for worldwide operations after a series of maintenance and training exercises and completion of full ship-shock trials by fiscal 2018, so there is time to correct deficiencies before potential combat operations. Yet the problems cited so far are critical for the vessel’s success.

Gilmore said the carrier’s advanced arresting gear for snagging landing aircraft and the launch system, both made by General Atomics of San Diego, are experiencing different but still inadequate levels of reliability. Meghan Ehlke, a General Atomics spokeswoman, didn’t respond to an e-mail seeking comment.

The arresting gear, which was criticized by the Pentagon’s inspector general in a July 6 report, has the most serious reliability limitations and “is unlikely to support high-intensity flight operations,” Gilmore said. Reliability “is well below expectations and well below what is needed to succeed in combat.”

Arresting Gear

The Navy estimates the arresting gear could be operated for approximately 25 consecutive landings, or cycles, between critical failures. That means it has a “negligible probability of completing” a 4-day surge “without an operational mission failure,” Gilmore wrote.

The electro-magnetic launch system’s reliability is higher but “nonetheless I have concerns,” Gilmore wrote. Recent Navy data indicates the carrier can conduct only 400 launches between critical failures, “well below the requirement” of 4,166 takeoffs, Gilmore wrote.

Gilmore said the system would have to increase its reliability to 1,600 launches between critical failures “to have a 90 percent chance of completing a day of sustained operations.” The Navy program office’s determined that the carrier “has less than a 7 percent chance of completing the four-day combat surge” plan, Gilmore wrote.

Radar Systems

The reliability of Raytheon Co.’s dual-band radar used for air-traffic control and self-defense against aircraft and missiles “is unknown.” Land testing of the system is using software still under development and some hardware reliability issues have surfaced, he said. Testing indicates failure rates of power sources and transmit-receive modules have dropped but a production model of the radar “will not be fully tested” until the ship goes to sea, he said.

Nonetheless, the Navy has praised the radar system, saying that in testing all six of the arrays designed to detect and track targets “have been successfully energized at high power” and “targets of opportunity” have been successfully tracked.

Testing also has been limited in the elevators used to move bombs between magazines and flight desk so “their reliability is unknown and is a risk,” Gilmore said. The Ford is designed to have 11 advanced weapons elevators.

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