The continuing struggle to get the USS Gerald R. Ford combat-ready raises troubling questions that could have profound implications for national defense as well as for the Hampton Roads region. It’s crucial that everything possible be done to fully resolve the problems.
There is a lot riding on the success of the Ford, the most expensive warship ever built, with an initial price tag of $13.2 billion. It’s the lead ship of the new Ford-class aircraft carriers, which is expected eventually to replace the aging Nimitz-class ships.
The new carriers are also supposed to be at the heart of the Navy’s plan to expand its fleet from the present 297 ships to 355 over the next three decades.
But there continue to be worrisome reports about equipment failures, to the point that some critics are wondering if the costly ships ever will be able to fill their expected role.
Even though reports last year indicated progress, a new assessment of the Ford from the Pentagon’s director of testing says that the carrier is still plagued by lack of reliability in its launching and landing systems as well as problems with the elevators used to lift munitions.
Meanwhile, the remaining 10 carriers in the Navy’s fleet, and their crews, are under increasing pressure while the Ford is unable to become a reliable part of operations. There are questions about how long the older ships will have to remain in service.
The Navy commissioned the Ford into the fleet in the spring of 2017, and the original plan was for it to be declared ready for extended deployments by 2018. Now some reports say that the Ford may not be ready until 2024.
The biggest problem has been that with the new aircraft takeoff and landing systems. Their advanced technology was expected to make the Ford class carriers more efficient, enabling them to launch and recover more aircraft than the carriers now in use. The new technologies also are designed to handle more diverse types of aircraft, including more of the unmanned drones increasingly being used for a variety of tasks.
The years of delay and resulting frustrations are also consequential for the economy of the Hampton Roads area, where Newport News Shipbuilding holds enormous Navy contracts for the Ford and three additional carriers in its class. Two years ago, the Navy made news by awarding Newport News Shipbuilding a combined $15.2 billion contract to build the third and fourth carriers in the Ford class. That means a lot of jobs — and stability for workers — in Hampton Roads.
But with the continuing delays in getting the Ford ready, Congress is likely to have a lot of questions about what has gone wrong and what steps are being taken to make sure the subsequent Ford-class carriers don’t face the same problems.
Those questions should be asked, of course, and the new leaders at the Pentagon and officials at the shipyard should be forthcoming about the situation and solutions.
There are likely to be at least some reasonable answers. It’s worth remembering that the Ford class carriers are substantially different than the carriers they are to replace and feature a great deal of cutting-edge but untested technology. It’s not unusual for the first ship in its class to have unexpected challenges and delays.
Some of those innovative technology systems come from other manufacturers, and it’s also common for problems to arise when trying to integrate such systems into a warship’s complex operations. Sometimes, neither the system nor the ship is defective, but the interface is problematic — or that projections of when the Ford would be combat ready were unrealistic.
Whatever the case, there are serious concerns in need of solutions. The hope is that the problems are well on their way to being corrected now, that the Ford will be a vital part of the fleet soon and that the rest of the ships in the class will have smoother sailing.