A gantry crane lifts the forward deck edge of the angled deck of the US Navy aircraft carrier Gerald R. Ford into place in May. The ship is scheduled to be commissioned in April 2016. (Huntington Ingalls Industries, Inc. / US Navy)
WASHINGTON — Concerns and criticisms about the past, present and future of the US Navy’s new Gerald R. Ford-class nuclear-powered aircraft carriers permeate a report released Sept. 5 from the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the investigative arm of Congress.
The GAO repeatedly takes the service to task for moving ahead without proper testing or developmental maturity. It criticizes shipbuilder Newport News for delays, workarounds, cost growth and an inability to find significant cost savings. It reaches back into the mid-2000s to lambaste decisions to bring forward immature technologies and rush them into service, and for optimistic cost projections that contributed to an overall cost growth of about 22 percent on the first ship.
GAO investigators panned the Navy’s extensive post-delivery testing plan, scheduled to last at least 34 months. They noted that developmental delays with the F-35C carrier-based joint strike fighter could cause more problems integrating the aircraft with the ship, and it recommends delaying the contract award for the second carrier until more risks are addressed.
But the report has not been produced without significant pushback from the Navy and the Pentagon. A draft version was circulated for response in the late spring and early summer, and the report was expected to have been released in early July.
The vigorous government response led to more revisions and reviews — including a GAO decision to drop a recommendation to delay commissioning the Ford, the first ship in the class — and the report notes that of five remaining recommendations, the government concurred with one, partially concurred with three and rejected another outright.
“The Navy agrees that delays have occurred in land-based testing of some critical technologies, but does not agree with the impact and conclusions GAO has drawn from those delays” the service wrote in a July 11 response, included in the final report.
The report breaks out work on the ship, along with 13 “critical” technologies — systems under development that are key to the ship’s ability to perform its missions. Those technologies include the electromagnetic aircraft launch system (EMALS); advanced arresting gear; dual-band radar; a new nuclear propulsion and electric plant; advanced weapon elevators; new high-strength toughness steel; and a new heavy underway replenishment system.
Each technology receives a Defense Department technology readiness level (TRL), an effort to assess the relative maturity of the developing systems. A TRL of 5 or below indicates early development; 6 and 7 shows a system or prototype has been successfully tested; 8 and 9 represent systems proven to work in the final form or actual mission conditions.
Of the 13 critical technologies in the Ford, seven are rated mature: the high strength low-alloy steel, rated at 9; high strength toughness steel, reverse osmosis desalinization system and nuclear propulsion plant at 8; the multifunction radar, plasma arc waste destruction system and underway replenishment station at 7. The remaining systems are all rated at 6, expected to reach the next level between this year and 2017.
The GAO remains critical of the relative immaturity of most of the systems in 2008, when the ship’s construction contract was awarded. There are numerous criticisms of the Navy’s reluctance to slow the ship’s construction schedule to compensate for delays in system development, even in the face of land-based testing delays of up to four and a half years.
“As a result, the Navy and its shipbuilder are constructing CVN 78 with less knowledge about the ship’s critical technologies than it deemed appropriate at contract award in 2008,” the report states. “As the disparity between land-based testing and construction schedule persists — or worsens — the Navy faces significant risks of unbudgeted cost growth arising from technical discoveries late in construction.”
There is little or no discussion, however, of the effect of construction delays on overall shipbuilding costs, even though one of the most common causes of price growth are delays.
Not all the criticisms are related to the critical systems. The GAO, for example, took shipbuilder Newport News to task for installing temporary fittings in piping systems so installation work could continue when a valve supplier experienced shortages. Investigators criticized the company because additional labor hours were needed to install the valves out of sequence.
Delays in completing the 3D computer models needed to finalize design work were also cited as contributing to inefficient work delays and restarts.
The most glaring criticisms are reserved for the overall cost growth of building the Ford. The Navy’s 2008 budget request estimated the ship would cost $10.5 billion, but that has grown to $12.8 billion — including $1.4 billion in funding in 2014 and 2015 to cover anticipated cost growth. The total rise of $2.3 billion over the original cost estimate represents a 22.3 percent jump.
Congress placed a cap of $10.5 billion on the ship, from which the Navy is seeking relief in the fiscal 2014 budget request.
Many of the additional costs were discovered relatively early in the construction process, and the service has been leaning heavily on Newport News to reduce spending. Increases have outpaced reductions, however, and the hoped-for goals have not been met.
The report concluded with five recommendations:
■Update the program’s test and evaluation master plan to account for outcomes taking place after 2013. The Navy agreed.
■Conduct a multi-faceted cost-benefit analysis to be completed 30 days after the ship is commissioned, an event expected to take place in April 2016. The Pentagon partially concurred, demurring on timing the analysis with the commissioning.
■Adjust the post-delivery test schedule to ensure more testing is completed before the ship enters its initial operational testing and evaluation period. The Navy partially concurred, separating warfare and non-warfare systems.
■Delay the contract award for the detail design and construction of the John F. Kennedy, the next ship of the class, until land-based testing of the Ford is completed. The Pentagon flatly rejected the recommendation.
■Update the Navy’s cost estimates for the Kennedy based on actual costs and labor hours on the Ford. The Navy partially concurred, noting such data would be included by the Pentagon’s Office of Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation.
The Navy also rejected an earlier GAO recommendation to delay commissioning the Ford until more testing could be completed. GAO withdrew that recommendation “based on information DoD provided about unintended consequences associated with delaying the commissioning ... including potential issues related to how a non-commissioned ship would operate effectively within the Navy’s chain of command.”
DoD noted in its response, the GAO said, that the Ford would not be operational until after testing and trials are completed.
“Until the ship is judged operationally ready, it will lack the ability to conduct assigned operations for which it is designed,” GAO wrote.
Navy and Shipbuilders Respond
“The Navy supports the work of GAO to provide information to Congress and conduct oversight of defense programs,” a Navy official said. “We look forward to continuing a productive dialogue with GAO and Congress — it is key in maintaining a successful acquisition program to bring this new class of aircraft carriers to the fleet.
“The Navy remains committed to the Ford-class aircraft carrier as a needed capability in the fleet,” the official added. “We’re working to incorporate lessons learned from the construction of CVN 78 along with new build strategies that will significantly reduce the cost of CVN 79 and future ships of the class.”
“We are intensely focused on driving down the costs of the John F. Kennedy and future Ford-class aircraft carriers,” Christie Miller, a spokeswoman for Newport News Shipbuilding, said in a statement.
“We are applying the valuable lessons we are learning in building Gerald R. Ford to improve construction of the Kennedy, a process that will be used from ship to ship going forward to maximize affordability. The mature and stable design will allow for improved material availability, and we are working with the Navy and our suppliers to identify ideas that would make future carriers more affordable.”
“Five years between ships,” she added, addressing the interval between building new aircraft carriers, “gives us and the Navy the time necessary to apply the lessons we are learning from.”
The full report is available at http://www.gao.gov/assets/660/657412.pdf