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GAO Blasts Navy's Ford-Class Carrier Program

Citing cost-growth, technological immaturity and schedule delays with the Navy’s Ford-class carrier program, a government watchdog has recommended the Pentagon re-examine requirements and testing and conduct a cost-benefit analysis.

The Sept. 5 report, titled “Ford Class Carriers: Lead Ship Testing and Reliability Shortfalls Will Limit Initial Fleet Capabilities,” claims construction of the first-in-class ship -- the USS Gerald Ford -- has resulted in a 22 percent cost increase since 2008. The report cites the cost at $12.8 billion.

In addition, the report questions the testing procedures and technological maturity of certain key systems on the Ford carrier, such as the Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System, or EMALS, a next-generation catapult technology engineered to replace the current steam catapults.

“The Navy has achieved mixed progress to date developing CVN 78's critical technologies, such as a system intended to more effectively launch aircraft from the ship,”  the report states. “Additional (cost) increases could follow due to uncertainties facing critical technology systems and shipbuilder underperformance.”

Navy officials countered the report and praised the progress contained in EMALS, saying the technology is showing promise.

“This allows pilots to launch and land with heavier aircraft, enabling the launch of lighter unmanned aircraft in the future. A secondary benefit of the electromagnetic aircraft launching system and advanced arresting gear is the ability to apply launch and recovery forces more evenly, producing less stress on the airframe and potentially saving on aircraft maintenance,” Rear Adm. Tom Moore, the Navy’s program executive officer for carriers, said in a written statement.

Prior GAO reports and Congressional inquiries regarding construction of the Ford have raised concerns about cost growth, availability of certain parts and schedule slips.

“Progress in constructing CVN 78 has been overshadowed by inefficient out-of-sequence work, driven largely by material shortfalls, engineering challenges, and delays developing and installing critical technology systems,” the report states.

GAO recommended that Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel direct the secretary of the navy to conduct a cost-benefit analysis on various aspects of the platform. For example, they want to examine the technologies resulting in an improved sortie-generation rate and reduced manning on the ship through greater automation.

The recommendations also suggest that the Navy seek requirements relief from the Joint Requirements Oversight Council, a Pentagon body dedicated to guiding acquisition and requirements.

Authors of the report recommend that the Navy report the findings of its analysis to Congress within 30-days of the commissioning of the USS Ford.

The Ford is currently finishing construction and slated for a christening ceremony this coming November. After entering the water this fall, the USS Ford is slated for additional testing and sea trials before entering service in 2016.

Unlike the Nimitz-class carriers which preceded them, the Ford-class carriers are built with EMALS, dual-band radar, more automation, upgraded nuclear power plants and a larger flight deck to increase the sortie rate, Navy officials have told

Navy officials said they welcome input from the GAO and that they stand by the Ford-class carrier program.

“The Ford-class carrier program will build on the performance of the Nimitz-class carriers and provide 25-percent more combat capability, increased service life margins throughout the ship to handle aircraft and weapons systems of the future including unmanned aircraft and futuristic directed energy weapons,” Lt. Caroline Hutcheson, Navy spokeswoman said.

Hutcheson also added that the improved automation and other new technologies on the Ford-class will result in $4 billion in savings over the 50-year life of a ship.

However, the GAO report expressed concern about the readiness of some of the technologies being built into the USS Ford.

“In an effort to meet required installation dates aboard CVN 78, the Navy has elected to produce some of these systems prior to demonstrating their maturity--a strategy that GAO's previous work has shown introduces risk of late and costly design changes and rework, and leaves little margin to incorporate additional weight growth in the ship,” the report says.

Navy officials said some of the costs and cost growth experienced with the USS Ford are one-time, first-in-class costs which will not recur. In fact, Navy program officials and shipbuilders with Huntington Ingalls Industries explained that many lessons from USS Ford construction are being applied to the initial efforts to build the second Ford-class carrier now also under construction, the USS John F. Kennedy or CVN 79.  The USS Kennedy is slated to enter service in 2025.

Regarding CVN 79, the GAO report said “the shipbuilder plans to employ a new, more efficient build strategy, but remaining technical and design risks with the lead ship could interfere with the Navy's ability to achieve its desired cost savings for CVN 79. These uncertainties also affect the soundness of the Navy's current CVN 79 cost estimate, which is optimistic.”

As a result, the GAO is recommending that the Navy delay or defer its “detail, design and construction” contract award for the Kennedy. As part of its formal response to the GAO in the Sept. 5 report, DoD did not concur with this recommendation.

In fact, ship builders and Navy program officials maintained that a delay in the contract to continue construction on the Kennedy may wind up resulting in unwanted cost increases. Furthermore, executives at Huntington Ingalls Industries have told that they have all the materials in place to continue construction of the Kennedy.

The Navy’s fiscal year 2014 budget request includes $945 million to finance design and construction of the Kennedy as well as $588 million to build the Ford.

Some 300 pieces of the USS Kennedy have already been built, according to Moore.

"I fully expect we will build Kennedy for a billion [dollars] less than we built Ford," Moore said in a July interview with "We’re already taking significant steps. We’ve got a plan in place but we’re not done -- we need to continue to do better. I spend many waking hours working with the ship builder and we are not done looking at new ways to build that ship more affordably. This is a continuous process."

Congressman Randy Forbes - R-Va., Chairman of the House Armed Services Seapower and Projection Forces Subcommittee said he too would like to see cost savings and lessons learned from the Ford applied to Kennedy construction.

"I am committed to exercising vigorous oversight of the program - including driving additional cost savings and lessons learned from CVN-78 into the CVN-79 program - to ensure the nation can retain the robust power projection capabilities found in our carrier fleet,” he said in an emailed statement.

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