Foxtrot AlphaTech and news from the world of modern defense.  

Carriers are really, really big. Everyone says it, but until you see the whole carrier, sitting high and dry in an empty dry dock for the first time, you really can’t comprehend the true size of the world’s largest warship.

The U.S. Navy just uploaded footage of the future USS John F. Kennedy, sitting in dry dock as water pours in, floating the ship for the first time. As one watches this impressive feat of engineering skill, it’s important to keep in mind that the first ship in its class, USS Ford, still has vexing technical problems—ones Kennedy herself is in danger of inheriting.

The video reminds viewers that carriers in a lot of ways are like icebergs—there’s a lot under the waves. As the video shows, easily a third of the ship sits permanently underwater. The bulbous bow, painted red and resembling a clown’s nose, as well as the red and black painted sections of the hull are rarely seen. In raw tonnage, that’s probably the equivalent of three guided-missile destroyers.

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Shipbuilder Huntington Ingalls Industries began construction of USS Kennedy in 2015 at Newport News Shipbuilding, Norfolk Virginia. Kennedy was declared structurally complete in July 2019 when a final, 780-ton section of the ship known as a “superlift” was gently lowered onto the rest of the hull. From now until late 2024, constructor Huntington Ingalls Industries will work to fit the new carrier with everything from electromagnetic catapults to toilets.

Kennedy is expected to be launched in November 2019, delivered to the U.S. Navy in September 2024, and deploy ready for action in late 2026. That’s 11 years to build an aircraft carrier—an astonishing length of time.

The second of the Ford-class carriers, Kennedy will replace the aging USS Nimitz in the service’s carrier lineup. The third Ford will carry a name bound to satisfy both naval historians and Trekkies alike, USS Enterprise.

USS Ford conducting a high speed turn at sea, October 2019.
Photo: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Connor Loessin (DIVDS)

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Unfortunately, all is not smooth sailing for the Ford class. The lead ship, Gerald R. Ford, began construction in 2009 and was supposed to conduct its first deployment in 2018. Thanks to technical problems, the ship’s first deployment is now slated for 2022. In 2008 the ship was projected to cost $10.4 billion.

That’s a lot even for an aircraft carrier, but Ford is the first of a new class of ships equipped with new electromagnetic aircraft launch catapults, new radar, new reactor, and new aircraft arresting gear. This was supposed to add up to vastly superior, cheaper to operate ship, so Congress grudgingly cut the check.

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Technical issues stemming from the new, sometimes untested tech incurred years-long delays and ballooned Ford’s cost to $13 billion. One of the most bedeviling of Ford’s problems is its new advanced weapon elevators (AWEs), which use electromagnetic propulsion to shuttle bombs, missiles and other munitions from the ship’s magazine to the flight deck.

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 After several years of troubleshooting, only four out of 11 AWEs are considered reliable, crippling the carrier’s ability to load aircraft with weapons and other stores. This pushed Ford’s first deployment back from 2018 to 2022... and maybe even 2024.

Weapons handlers handler an inert (note blue bomb casing) GBU-10 laser guided bomb on one of the few Advanced Weapon Elevators that actually works. The GBU-10 is based on the 2,000 pound general purpose bomb.
Photo: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Marissa Bacon (DVIDS)

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In early 2019, Secretary of the Navy Richard V. Spencer famously offered to resign if the elevators were not fixed when the ship was delivered to the Navy.

The Navy secretary, a blunt-talking former investment banker, disclosed in a January speech that he’d made the offer to Trump at the annual Army-Navy football game in December. He said he asked the president “to stick out his hand, he stuck his hand out and I said, ‘Let’s do this like corporate America.’ I shook his hand” and said “the elevators will be ready to go when she pulls out” in August, after the vessel’s post-delivery shakedown phase is finished, “or you can fire me.”

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According to Spencer, he and Trump held a meeting in October and the President didn’t bring the deal up, only telling him to “keep going”—thus proving the situation really was handled “like corporate America.”

Will Kennedy steer clear of Ford’s problems? Kennedy is projected to cost $11.3 billion, significantly cheaper than Ford. Kennedy will also feature advanced weapon elevators but, according to Spencer, Huntington Ingalls Industries thinks it will have them working by 2021.

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What happens next? Insert the “corporate America” joke of your choosing here.