It is the latest, greatest aircraft carrier ever built — the Ford class of supercarriers.
Powered by two nuclear reactors, the USS Gerald R Ford is longer than three football fields and displaces 100,000 tons. When the air wing is attached, the Ford provides a base for dozens of jets and helicopters and more than 4,500 sailors.
But the massive ship has been in the fleet for almost three years and has yet to deploy on a single mission.
Envisioned as a revolutionary leap forward in technology, it has been plagued with a series of mechanical problems that have pushed its price tag into the stratospheric US$13 billion range, The Washington Times reported.
The first of three planned supercarriers, it incorporates systems such as an advanced arresting gear and the electromagnetic launch system (EMALS), a replacement for the hydraulic catapults that have flung fighter jets off carrier decks for decades, the report said.
The ship is well into its post-delivery tests and trials. Crucial shock trials, which will assess how the Ford stands up to underwater explosions, are scheduled for next year.
The redesigned flight deck, which was developed in consultation with NASCAR pit engineers, gives the Ford an extra half acre of real estate over its predecessors, Defense News reported.
The extra space is key to the Navy’s newest platform, built from the keel up to maximize how efficiently the ship can generate sorties, as well as be adaptable to new aircraft and weapons systems over time.
But the 23 new technologies incorporated into the Ford, while making the ship a technological marvel, have also been the cause of ongoing controversy as delays and cost overruns marred the program.
With the technological challenges, the Navy has made personnel shake-ups. It recently sacked Ford program manager Capt. Ron Rutan and replaced him with the officer who oversaw development of the amphibious transport dock, Capt. Brian Metcalf.
“We must ensure that the team takes the opportunity to recharge and allow for fresh eyes on upcoming challenges as required,” a spokesman for Naval Sea Systems Command said.
But private analysts say the whole program still faces choppy waters.
Jerry Hendrix, a retired US Navy captain and military analyst, said the most glaring problem is that the Ford is the wrong ship for its most likely mission. The Pentagon is in the midst of a major mission shift — from a focus on terrorism and nonstate groups to traditional targeting of nation-state rivals, particularly China, the report said.
Designed to operate in a relatively low-threat environment such as the Arabian Gulf, the carrier is ill-suited “for implementing the current National Defense Strategy, which focuses on great-power competition,” Hendrix wrote in an essay in National Review.
He advocates midsized carriers that would be less technologically complex and far more affordable to build in larger numbers, the report said.
“The Navy says it needs carriers to deter enemies and win wars. It should move rapidly to a new design that can fully support the National Defense Strategy by efficiently doing both,” Capt. Hendrix wrote.
Lieutenant Colonel Dakota Wood, a retired Marine Corps officer and now senior research fellow for defense programs at The Heritage Foundation in Washington said rosy predictions embraced by shipbuilders and members of Congress are often behind the cost overruns, the report said.
“Everybody buys into the fiction of the early promises. A lot of the promises that are made are overly optimistic in terms of what technology can deliver on schedule and certainly on budget,” Col. Wood said.
The Government Accountability Office concluded in a recent assessment of the Ford that the Navy is struggling to demonstrate the reliability of key features such as the electromagnetic launch system and the advanced arresting gear, or AAG.
“If these systems cannot function safely by the time operational testing begins, [the USS Gerald Ford] will not be able to demonstrate it can rapidly deploy aircraft, a key requirement for these carriers,” the report states.
In September, the Navy increased the Ford’s cost cap by US$197 million to US$13.2 billion in part to correct persistent breakdowns in the ship’s weapons elevators, the report said.
None of the elevators between the main deck and the lower decks is operational, the GAO noted, which means they are still incapable of bringing munitions to the flight deck.
The report also identified issues with the toilet and sewage system, which is apparently also set to be present on the next ship in the class, the future USS John F. Kennedy, The Drive reported.
The repeated clogging stems from a decision to use an all-new system “similar to what is on a commercial aircraft, but increased in scale for a crew of over 4,000 people,” according to the report.
The Navy and the shipbuilder, Huntington Ingalls Industries, are well aware of the problems with the Ford, Col. Wood said.
“The Gerald Ford is not only an operational carrier; it’s also a test bed,” he said. “You’re testing things that haven’t been fully matured. It’s a voyage of discovery.”