Pentagon Weapons Buyer Orders Review of Troubled New Carrier

  • Kendall cites $12.9 billion ship’s reliance on new technology
  • Flaws cited from power systems to radar and launch and landing

The Pentagon’s top weapons buyer has ordered an independent review of the $12.9 billion Gerald R. Ford aircraft carrier, citing a list of actual and potential deficiencies with the costliest warship ever.

“With the benefit of hindsight, it was clearly premature to include so many unproven technologies” on the vessel, from those needed to generate power and launch and land aircraft to its radar and elevators to move munitions, Frank Kendall said in an Aug. 23 memo addressed to Navy Secretary Ray Mabus and obtained by Bloomberg News.

The review comes three months before the carrier is scheduled to be delivered to the Navy. The Ford is being built by Huntington Ingalls Industries Inc., with advanced systems from a number of subcontractors, including Raytheon Co. and General Atomics.

The inclusion of unproven technologies was a decision “made long ago as part of a DoD-level initiative called ‘Transformation,’” Kendall wrote. The initiative, which also produced several failed space programs, came under Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld starting in 2001.

The Navy plans to deploy the Ford, designated CVN-78, for worldwide operations by 2021 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 resolving the problems cited so far are critical for the vessel’s success.

‘Capabilities Needed’

“The USS Ford, like every first-of-class ship ever built, has and will continue to face challenges,” Commander Mike Kafka, a Navy spokesman, said in an interview. “However, the capabilities resident on Ford are needed now and in the future, and the Navy will continue to work hard to get Ford completed and into the fleet, paying close attention to both new and legacy systems.”

While the Navy is pushing toward delivery of the carrier by the end of this year, Kafka said, “this date may need to be revised as we continue shipboard testing.”

Kendall’s memo lists five primary technology areas to be reviewed, including propulsion and electrical system components that he said could be tied to “recent issues discovered with the Main Turbine Generators,” launch and recover systems for aircraft and a new dual-band radar that he said has had “integration issues” on the Ford “that need to be avoided” on the next two vessels in the class.

“What we have to determine now is whether it is best to ‘stay the course’ or adjust our plans,” especially for the second and third ships in what’s now projected to be a $42 billion program. The initial carrier current projected cost of $12.9 billion hits a congressionally mandated cost cap.

The Navy questions the value of the new review because it will be conducted during a peak period of seaboard testing and won’t contribute to correcting deficiencies that the service is already dealing with, said a Navy official who asked not to be identified discussing the service’s internal views on Kendall’s decision.

Other than capturing lessons learned, Kendall’s review will have little bearing on the initial ship or the second vessel in the class, the CVN-79 -- the USS John F. Kennedy -- because it’s progressing in construction, he said. Any significant changes the review identifies couldn’t be implemented until the CVN-80 years from now, the official said.

‘Completely Objective’

“The first step in that process has to be a completely objective and technically deep review of the current situation,” Kendall said in a memo on the review that also presages decisions that may have to be made by the next president and defense secretary. The Navy announced last month that the initial ship, originally due by September 2014, wouldn’t be delivered before November at the earliest because of continuing, unspecified testing issues.

“We expect this” review “to be completed in the mid-November time frame,” Kendall’s spokesman Mark Wright said in an e-mail. “We want to be sure we all have the same accurate picture of the reliability and performance aspects of the key new systems on the CVN-78” so there is “enough time to make proper decisions going forward.”

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 fight 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,” Michael Gilmore, the Pentagon’s chief testing officer, wrote Kendall last month. As delivery of the 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.

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