The upcoming USS Gerald Ford is a $12.9 billion masterclass in neat new tech with electromagnet catapults and super radar and lots of other cool and very necessary things. Who cares if some of these things maybe, uh, don’t work?
That’s the issue at hand for the Pentagon, now ordering an independent review of the supercarrier (the first new class of carriers in more than 40 years) and its entire $42 billion program, as Bloomberg reports. Bloomberg acquired a memo from Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics Frank Kendall to United States Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, and it turns out that Kendall is less than pleased with the super neat and very big USS Gerald Ford. As Bloomberg quotes:
“With the benefit of hindsight, it was clearly premature to include so many unproven technologies” on the vessel, from those needed to generate power and launch and land aircraft to its radar and elevators to move munitions, Frank Kendall said in an Aug. 23 memo addressed to Navy Secretary Ray Mabus and obtained by Bloomberg News.
Kendall’s memo lists five primary technology areas to be reviewed, including propulsion and electrical system components that he said could be tied to “recent issues discovered with the Main Turbine Generators,” launch and recover systems for aircraft and a new dual-band radar that he said has had “integration issues” on the Ford “that need to be avoided” on the next two vessels in the class.
The Ford is supposed to be the U.S. Navy’s newest aircraft carrier, and like any 21st-century bit of military hardware it’s supped to come resplendent with technology, including electromagnet catapults instead of old steam catapults, a new kind of arresting gear system that has demonstrated a 20 percent failure rate, a new dual-band radar system that may be already obsolete, and new turbine generators to facilitate this electricity-over-steam ethos.
According to Kendall’s memo, all of these systems have those problems.
Worse, this carrier is a shining beacon for the Navy’s concurrency myth, the idea being that modern computer simulation means testing is unnecessary. The Ford was supposed to go into production without any real kind of testing, and it was designed in such a way that its fancy and unproven new technologies couldn’t be easily replaced with existing, totally fine, but ugh totally boring old systems. As we wrote a year ago, this whole drama is puzzling:
With all this in mind, one has ask why the Pentagon thought putting such a large asset, both in expenditure and size, into production with such an immature set of core subsystems that also happen to be nearly impossible to replace with proven ones, was a good idea?
It’s not as if existing arresting gear, catapults and radar systems, or the previous Nimitz Class design for that matter, are ineffective. Including all these immature sub-system into a carrier that costs more than $13 billion assumes massive amounts of totally avoidable risk.
Unlike the F-35, we do not have the luxury of building hundreds, or even dozens of Ford-class carriers in the near term in order to “eventually get it right.” What happens if the ship’s core technologies, namely its launch and recovery systems, are simply not in an operational state by the time the ship is supposed to formally enter the fleet? What cost will such a delay bring to the program’s already ballooning budget? Then there are also the operational and end-strength issues as the Navy is already experiencing a critical ‘carrier gap’.
What’s worse is that it may not even be possible to retrofit this giant vessel with proven “legacy” systems, such as hydraulic arresting gear engines and steam catapults, if their newer, high-risk alternatives prove to be far from reliable.
And if these new systems aren’t reliable at all, they’ll need to be taken out. Which means cutting the entire carrier apart.
Anyway, now the Pentagon wants that all tested and they want the whole program reviewed because it’s a shitshow.