Supercarrier Ford Returns to Norfolk as Navy Leaders Spar with Shipbuilder, Congress on Setbacks

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The aircraft carrier USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN 78) conducts high-speed turns in the Atlantic Ocean, Oct. 29, 2019. (U.S. Navy/Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Connor Loessin)
The aircraft carrier USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN 78) conducts high-speed turns in the Atlantic Ocean, Oct. 29, 2019. (U.S. Navy/Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Connor Loessin)

The military's most expensive ship hit what Navy officials are calling a significant milestone Wednesday when it returned to its Virginia homeport.

The aircraft carrier Gerald R. Ford is back in Naval Station Norfolk after several setbacks in getting new technology on the ship working, some of which remains ongoing.

Despite the setbacks -- including 15 months of maintenance at Newport News Shipbuilding where the ship was built -- the Navy says the first Ford-class carrier will be "the centerpiece of national defense in an increasingly complex security environment."

"USS Gerald R. Ford is the most technologically advanced, most lethal combat platform in the world," Rear Adm. James Downey, the program executive officer for Navy aircraft carriers, said in a statement. "Everyone, from the highest levels of government to the crew working the deck plates, is laser focused on this aircraft carrier being ready to enter fleet service."

Related: SecNav Fires Back at Critics Over Problems with Newest Supercarrier

The ship's hefty $13 billion price tag and many maintenance delays have certainly caught flak from leaders in Washington.

President Donald Trump once called the Ford's Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System known as EMALS "no good," saying he'd mandate that future carriers return to the legacy steam catapult system. And Rep. Elaine Luria, a Virginia Democrat and retired Navy surface officer, recently referred to the ship as a $13 billion floating berthing barge.

Navy leaders don't deny there have been challenges. But Vice Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Robert Burke told reporters last week the service and shipbuilder had made "some significant strides in the last 15 months."

"I've had the opportunity to go down there and visit the ship, talk to the sailors and civilians that are working the challenges there," Burke said. "The way they've been methodically navigating the technical setbacks is pretty remarkable."

The Ford-class ships mark the first new carrier design the Navy has put out in more than four decades. The first in its class features a host of new technology, including EMALS, a dual-band radar, and new high-tech weapons elevators.

Leaders have acknowledged the decision to add all those technologies at once contributed to some of the significant setbacks, though Navy Secretary Richard V. Spencer said last week that Congress and the shipbuilder are also to blame.

Congress put price caps on the new carrier, Spencer said, and the shipbuilder didn't deliver on fixes to the weapons elevators and other problems.

"I would love to know that Congress understands what a price cap does," the Navy secretary said. "If you are doing business for me and you said, 'I'm going to paint your house for $100,' and I walk up to you and said, 'Oh, the price cap is now $75,' ... it's probably going to affect how you're going to perform."

The Ford will now "enter a post-delivery test and trials period to certify fuel systems, conduct aircraft compatibility testing, certify the flight deck, and test the combat systems installed aboard the ship," Stars and Stripes reported Friday.

Capt. Ron Rutan, the Ford's program manager, said working through problems with the carrier's new systems will help when producing the next two ships in its class.

Huntington Ingalls Industries began filling the carrier John F. Kennedy dry dock this week in preparation for that ship's December christening.

-- Gina Harkins can be reached at gina.harkins@military.com. Follow her on Twitter @ginaaharkins.

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