Rear Adm. Wayne Meyer, the “father” of the Aegis weapon system, often exclaimed, “There is nothing more complex than the design, engineering and construction of a warship.”
That complexity is at its most extreme in the case of America’s nuclear-powered aircraft carriers (CVNs). And this is particularly so in the design, engineering and construction of the lead warship in a new class of CVNs. That complexity and first-in-line status almost always contribute to “birthing pains,” that is, challenges in design, equipment, costs and schedule.
Many a US Navy warship class –– harkening back to the six frigates first authorized in 1794 –– has experienced birthing pains. This has held true through much more recent shipbuilding programs: Ticonderoga (CG 47) and Arleigh Burke (DDG 51) Aegis cruisers and destroyers; San Antonio (LPD 17) amphibious landing-platform dock ships; Virginia (SSN 21) nuclear-powered attack submarines; and the Freedom (LCS 1) and Independence (LCS 2) littoral combat ships.
Virtually every lead ship has encountered “bugs” in design and equipment that contributed to cost growth and missed schedules. And yet, once the bugs were exterminated, the Navy’s warships carried out sometimes daunting operational taskings during decades-long service lives.
So it has already been encountered in the Navy’s next-generation Ford (CVN 78)-class carriers. Schedules have slipped and costs have increased.
Ford was christened on Nov. 9, four months behind the original schedule and with total cost capped at $12.8 billion.
Importantly, however, that top-line price includes $3.3 billion in non-recurring design and engineering costs that will be spread across the 10 carriers in the plan, making Ford’s baseline cost actually $9.5 billion.
CVN 78’s acquisition cost was originally pegged at $8.1 billion, but that was determined before the additional cost to engineer the dual-band radar and the need to increase the reliability of the advanced electromagnetic aircraft launch system were factored into the design-to-delivery equation.
While the Navy’s goal must certainly be to minimize cost growth, the 17 percent cost increase for CVN 78 is not unusual. Indeed, it turns out to be better than many other US defense programs, some of which have experienced overruns on the order of 30 percent, according to Frank Kendall, undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics.
Nor has this been consigned only to initial developmental phases of programs. “We tend to overrun our production programs by about 10 percent,” Kendall remarked in July.
As with every lead ship, the testing and delivery process for CVN 78 will uncover some unintended consequences of design decisions made along the way. For example, the Government Accountability Office in a September report raised concerns about lead-ship testing and reliability of advanced systems in the first two Ford CVNs, which the Navy and the shipbuilder are addressing. They will all be fixed, leading to even further improvement on CVN 79 and 80.
Suggestions that the Navy should have delayed starting CVN 78’s construction until the design was completed runs counter to the reality that the lead ship –– like all complex warships –– is in a sense a “design” asset, perhaps even a “prototype.” In that regard, the Navy is using it to work out the bugs and produce follow-on CVNs with minimal design, equipment, cost and schedule challenges.
The Ford class will bring greater capabilities compared with the last ship of the 10-carrier Nimitz (CVN 68) class, which first entered service in 1975: the USS George H.W. Bush (CVN 77), commissioned in 2009.
According to Ronald O’Rourke, the Congressional Research Service’s naval specialist, the CVN 78 design incorporates several improvements, including features permitting the ship to generate about 33 percent more aircraft sorties per day, three times the electrical power for supporting ship systems, and features permitting the ship to be operated by several hundred fewer sailors than CVN 77, significantly reducing life-cycle operating and support costs.
Taking the longer view, the complexity of the carrier’s engineering contributes to projections that each ship will save some $4 billion in maintenance and manpower costs throughout its 50-year expected service life.
And, if past is prologue, these warships will operate several generations of manned and unmanned aircraft armed with a broad spectrum of weapons and sensors.
In short, there is no more complex system-of-systems process than the design, engineering and building of a nuclear-propelled aircraft carrier.
In CVN 78 and 79, the Navy has bounded the challenges of birthing pains, and is continuing on course to ensure war-fighting readiness for the next 80 years.
ScottTruver, director of TeamBlue National Security Programs at Gryphon Technologies, Washington. D.C.