U.S. Navy Opts for Block Buy for Two Ford-Class Carriers

USS Ford under way during sea trials (USN)

Published Jan 3, 2019 9:12 PM by The Maritime Executive

On New Years' Eve, the Pentagon finalized plans to buy the third and fourth Ford-class aircraft carriers at one time in a money-saving "block buy" deal. The arrangement will save the Navy an estimated $2.5 billion to $4 billion dollars, and it will provide continuity for shipbuilder Huntington Ingalls, along with its workforce and its suppliers. 

Congress has already appropriated the necessary funds, and it left the decision whether to acquire the two vessels at once to the Defense Department's leadership. The contracting process is expected to be completed by the end of this month.  

The first vessel, USS Gerald R. Ford, is currently undergoing a post-shakedown availabilty at HII's Newport News yard after completing its sea trials. The second, the USS John F. Kennedy, is currently under construction and about half completed. The block buy would pay for the third, the future USS Enterprise, and the fourth, the as-yet-unnamed CVN-81. 

Cost control is a key objective for the Ford-class program, which suffered significant budget overruns and delays on the first vessel. At $13 billion in construction costs, not including $5 billion for R&D, the USS Ford is the most expensive self-propelled ship ever built. Only the permanently moored Prelude FLNG platform, which has an estimated cost in the range of $12-14 billion, may exceed the Ford's price as the most expensive vessel of any kind. 

The Navy and HII say that Ford's cost overruns and delays were due in part to first-in-class issues, like most cutting-edge warship programs. The Ford suffered a series of bearing failures and propulsion failures during testing and sea trials, which forced costly repairs, and her aircraft launch and recovery systems required extensive troubleshooting to improve reliability. In addition, her bomb-carrying weapons elevators experienced several instances of "uncommanded movements" during early testing, and the mission-critical devices will not be fully constructed and certified until next summer. 

Congress has mandated a cost cap of $11.4 billion for USS Kennedy, and the Government Accountability Office has warned that this target will be difficult to achieve. HII's CEO, Michael Petters, has said that a block buy is the single largest potential source of savings for the remaining ships in the class.

Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Virginia), whose constituency includes Newport News, celebrated the announcement of the block buy agreement. "Newport News builds the finest carriers in the world, and I know they are ready to handle this increase in work as we make progress toward the Navy’s goal of a 355-ship fleet,” he said in a statement.