The Navy should know by Christmas when it plans to take possession of the aircraft carrier Gerald R. Ford, a $12.9 billion ship with an on-again, off-again delivery schedule due to several technical problems.
Vice Adm. Tom Moore said the Navy is making progress on isolating and fixing a troublesome electrical issue that has been blamed on a defective component. Clearing that hurdle will allow testing to continue on the propulsion plant.
"I would expect before the end of the year we'll be able to set a date certain on when we think the ship will be delivered," said Moore, the commander of Naval Sea Systems Command, during a roundtable discussion with reporters Wednesday in Washington.
Less certain is who will bear responsibility for this problem.
Newport News Shipbuilding, a division of Huntington Ingalls Industries, is the sole designer and builder of nuclear-powered aircraft carriers for the U.S. Navy. The Ford is currently pier side at the shipyard, its construction essentially complete.
Moore said the component failure was not necessarily something that could have been flagged ahead of time. He did not identify the faulty component.
"In hindsight, you could say, 'Oh, you should be able to notice that,' " he said. "But as you build these very complex systems, I think that we did due diligence. It was not something you were going to easily find up front."
However, he added: "It is absolutely imperative, from an accountability standpoint, that we work with Newport News to find out where the responsibility lies."
He said shipyard officials are working with sub-contractors to get to the heart of the problem. Until that process sorts itself out, it's too early to say who is accountable.
"When we figure that out," Moore said, "contractually we will take the necessary steps to make sure the government is not paying for something that we shouldn't be paying for."
Christie Miller, a Newport News shipyard spokeswoman, said, "We agree with the Navy's characterization relative to responsibility and accountability. We have no further comment."
The electrical problem was among five issues cited in an August memo from Frank Kendall, a Defense Department undersecretary and lead weapons buyer. Navy Secretary Ray Mabus responded days later, citing "design vulnerabilities" that required a fix before the ship's delivery.
Kendall, who has commissioned a 60-day review of the Ford carrier program, also cited ongoing concerns with the Ford's advanced arresting gear (AAG). It combines energy-absorbing water turbines and an induction motor to bring aircraft to a controlled stop.
It is designed to require less maintenance and be more flexible in accommodating whatever future aircraft might land on the Ford, which is intended to serve for 50 years.
The advanced arresting gear, already installed in Ford, is still undergoing testing at a land-based site in Lakehurst, N.J. The Navy recently announced it had conducted a dozen "fly-in" landings of an F/A-18E Super Hornet.
That was a first. Prior to that, it had tested the system with "roll-in" landings.
Moore said testing on AAG is 56 percent complete. Referring to the dozen fly-in landings, he said, "We thought that would take a week and we did it in a day."
The Navy plans to issue an aircraft recovery bulletin for the Super Hornet by February. The bulletin instructs the crew on how to use the advanced arresting gear for a specific type of aircraft.
The Navy is currently studying whether to continue with AAG on the next Ford-class carrier, the John F. Kennedy. That ship is more than 20 percent complete at the Newport News shipyard. If the Navy abandons AAG, it would return to an older-style arresting system.
Moore said if progress continues on AAG, he believes "there is a very strong and viable path forward" to use it on future Ford-class ships.
Moore is the Navy's former program executive officer of aircraft carriers. He left that job earlier this year to assume command of NAVSEA, which designs, builds, delivers and maintains the Navy fleet. When he left his old job, he would have bet his paycheck that the Ford would have met a projected September delivery date, he said.
He described himself as more frustrated than angry that the Navy has yet to take delivery of the ship.