In Quest for 355 Ships, Navy May Buy Two Supercarriers at Once

In this April 8, 2017 file photo provided by the U.S. Navy, the USS Gerald R. Ford embarks on the first of its sea trials to test various systems on its own power for the first time, from Newport News, Va. (U.S. Navy)
In this April 8, 2017 file photo provided by the U.S. Navy, the USS Gerald R. Ford embarks on the first of its sea trials to test various systems on its own power for the first time, from Newport News, Va. (U.S. Navy)

The Navy is exploring the prospect of acquiring two Ford-class carriers in a single buy to reduce costs and expedite fleet growth so it can reach its goal of a 355-ship fleet as early as the 2030s, service officials said.

The service has released a formal Request for Proposal to industry in an effort to "further define the cost saving achievable with a two-ship buy."

The plan would involve buying the third and fourth Ford-class carriers at the same time, combining the acquisition of CVN 80, the future USS Enterprise, and the yet-unnamed CVN 81.

The two-ship buy is a contracting strategy the Navy used in the 1980s to procure Nimitz-class aircraft carriers, an initiative that achieved significant acquisition cost savings compared to contracting for the ships individually, a Naval Sea Systems Command statement said.

The Navy hopes to award the CVN 80 construction contract in early 2019 as a two-ship buy, pending congressional approval.

"This opportunity for a two-ship contract is dependent on significant savings that the shipbuilding industry and government must demonstrate," Navy procurement executive James F. Geurts, assistant secretary of the Navy, Research Development and Acquisition, said in a written statement.

Streamlining acquisition of the Ford class brings the advantage of potentially speeding up construction and delivery of the new ships as well, significant to the Navy's fast-tracked effort to reach a 355-ship fleet.

Part of this strategy is articulated in the Navy's recent 2019 30-year shipbuilding plan, called the "Report to Congress on the Annual Long-Range Plan for Construction of Naval Vessels for Fiscal Year 2019."

The plan says the service is working on "setting the conditions for an enduring industrial base as the top priority, so that the Navy is postured to respond to more aggressive investment in any year."

Controlling carrier costs has been a long-standing challenge for the Navy. Several years ago, the service received substantial criticism from lawmakers and government watchdog groups for rising costs during the construction of the USS Ford.

The Ford's construction costs wound up being several billion dollars above early estimates, leading Congress to impose a $12.9 billion cost-cap on the ship.

At the time, Navy officials pointed out that integrating new technologies brings challenges, saying that at least $3 billion of the Ford's costs were due to what's described as non-recurring engineering costs for a first-in-class ship.

Nonetheless, service leaders have acknowledged the challenges and consistently said the Navy has made substantial progress with efforts to lower costs for Ford-class carriers.

Following the concerns over USS Ford cost overruns, the Navy implemented a "design for affordability" plan to find efficiencies and innovative ways to cut costs.

The program looked into a range of possibilities, such as whether new coatings for the ship or welding techniques could be used or whether millions of feet of electrical cabling could be installed more efficiently, Navy officials described.

Other cost-saving efforts included the increased use of complex assemblies, common integrated work packages, automated plate marking, weapons elevator door re-designs and vertical build strategies, officials said.

Senior Navy leaders and Huntington Ingalls Industries executives have made numerous public statements that lessons from the USS Ford's construction are being harnessed and applied to CVN 79, the USS John F. Kennedy, and subsequent carrier builds as a way to control costs.

For instance, Navy leaders say new construction methods are being used on the Kennedy and that billions in non-recurring engineering costs from the USS Ford effort are being avoided because the designs were completed before construction of the Kennedy began.

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