Navy’s Supercarrier Ducks a Fight

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By Tobin Harshaw

In general, I'd applaud any effort the U.S. Navy made to cut costs on its next-generation aircraft carrier, the Gerald R. Ford Class. Unfortunately it's now trying to cut corners in the worst possible place: tests to see if the ship can stay afloat under fire.

Bloomberg News Pentagon correspondent Tony Capaccio reported today on an internal memo written by Michael Gilmore, the service's director of operational testing and evaluation, to Secretary Ray Mabus objecting that $70 million in tests to "rigorously evaluate the ship's ability to withstand shock and survive in combat" are going to be postponed until after a second of the lumbering, $14 billion supercarriers comes off the Huntington-Ingalls line in Newport News, Virginia.

A Navy spokeswoman told Capaccio that the ship's hull had "extensive survivability modeling and simulation" and that live combat testing raised environmental impact concerns. Given the history of the $42 billion project, let's be a tad skeptical.

Costs on the first carrier have risen by 18 percent over the last four years, and how smart do we really think it is to be sending out a craft 20 stories high and three football fields long in an era of asymmetric warfare? “Our future adversaries are developing a set of capabilities specifically for the purpose of attacking our aircraft carriers,” Mark Gunzinger, a senior fellow with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, told Bloomberg's Roxana Tiron. Let's face it, Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps is likely to get more bang for the buck from its explosive-laden speedboat fleet.

Senator John McCain, the Arizona Republican and former Navy pilot, calls the Fords a "national disgrace" and wants the military to continue buying the current Nimitz Class. But that assumes we need even the 11 carrier groups we maintain today, an iffy proposition given the current shift toward nimbler capabilities such as aerial (and seaborne) drones.

Even if the dreaded "sequestration" cuts scheduled under last summer's debt-ceiling agreement are averted by Congress, the military is going to have trim like crazy over the next decade. That task isn't going to be made any easier by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta's decision this week not to seek a round of base closings next year, or by President Barack Obama's desire to spare personnel costs from the budgetary knife. More and more, the Ford Class looks like a floating white elephant.

(Tobin Harshaw writes editorials on national security for Bloomberg View. Follow him on Twitter @tobinharshaw.)

Read more breaking commentary from Josh Barro and other Bloomberg View columnists and editors at the Ticker.

-0- Aug/09/2012 19:28 GMT