USS Gerald R. Ford

Delaying Shock Tests on Costliest Ship Ever

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June 10, 2015

People gather for the christening ceremony of America’s newest aircraft carrier, the USS Gerald R. Ford, at the Newport News Shipyard, November 9, 2013 in Newport News, Virginia. Photographer: David Hume

The Navy should conduct combat shock tests on its new aircraft carrier that could disclose serious vulnerabilities in the costliest U.S. war ship ever built before it’s deployed in 2019, three top Pentagon officials said.

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The officials, including Stephen Welby, the Defense Department’s head of systems engineering, wrote on May 27 that a Navy plan to delay the tests at sea until as late as 2025, when they’d be performed on the second of three planned carriers, “is not acceptable because the risks are not acceptable.”

In a shock trial, underwater charges are set off to assess how well a ship can withstand them. A crew is on board, and the test isn’t intended to damage equipment. The results are used to judge vulnerabilities and design changes that may be needed.

The officials recommended in their memo to Frank Kendall, the Pentagon’s chief weapons buyer, that the Navy fully fund the “full-ship shock tests” in its fiscal 2017 budget. The Navy has contended that risks from a delay are low as it tries to deploy the first ship in a new class of carriers — the USS Gerald R. Ford, designated CVN-78 — as soon as possible to relieve stress on a force that’s now down to 10 vessels.

“The thought that CVN-78 could deploy and potentially fight without this testing would be imprudent and puts sailors at risk,” the Senate Armed Services Committee said in its report on the fiscal 2016 defense authorization bill.

Navy spokeswoman Commander Thurraya Kent said in an e-mail that the service declined to comment.

Pentagon Tensions

The memo is part of continuing debate inside the Pentagon over testing the Ford carrier, built by Huntington Ingalls Industries Inc. at a cost now estimated at $12.9 billion. It pits the Navy against the Pentagon’s director of combat testing, who’s now been joined by Welby and two other officials, including the director of “development testing” David Brown.

The debate reflects inherent tensions between the military services, which want to field new weapons systems as soon as possible, and specialists on testing who have gained clout since Congress created the office of combat testing in 1983, the U.S. Government Accountability Office said in a new report.

The issue was elevated last week to Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work to resolve. Work convened a June 3 meeting with Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, his service’s weapons chief Sean Stackley and Pentagon officials representing Kendall.

“A decision on full-ship shock trials is expected later this summer,” Work’s spokeswoman, Navy Lieutenant Commander Courtney Hillson, said in an e-mail.

Kendall’s spokeswoman, Maureen Schumann, said in an e-mail statement that “he receives input and recommendations from many different sources,” but she declined to get into specifics.

Risk Cited

The Gerald R. Ford has a new catapult, arresting system and radar “as well as a reliance on electricity rather than steam to power key systems” so “there continues to be a great deal of risk in this program,” the Senate committee said in its report.

Navy officials have argued that a delay in full-ship testing is justified because the carrier will complete component-level tests before deployment in 2019 and has been designed to be shock-hardened. The vessel also has been evaluated through modeling and simulation.

“These improvements significantly reduced the risk of mission-critical failures in a combat shock environment but don’t eliminate them completely,” Stackley’s principle civilian deputy James Thomsen, wrote Kendall on May 20.

“While there is some risk of deploying in advance of the shock trial, the Navy considers that this is low-risk and acceptable,” Thomsen said.

Extended Deployments

Conducting tests on the Ford before deployment would delay until as late as 2022 the return to an 11-carrier fleet, the number mandated by Congress, the Navy’s said.

The Navy has operated with 10 carriers with the retirement of the USS Enterprise in 2012. The Navy has said extended deployments of the remaining ships has placed stress on crews.

Welby, Brown and James MacStravic, assistant secretary for tactical systems, wrote in their memo that “we have not been provided sufficient data by the Navy to substantiate the claim about extended deployments.”

Congress may decide the issue for the Navy if the Senate Armed Services Committee position in its defense bill is adopted by the House.

The Senate bill adds $79 million for the test and a requirement for the Navy to certify that it will be performed no later than Sept. 30, 2017.

It also holds up $100 million in procurement spending on the second carrier, the USS John F. Kennedy, until the Navy submits its certifications.

©2015 Bloomberg News

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