USS Ford Returns to Sea Trials After 15 Months of Repairs

Work continues on inoperable lower-stage weapons elevators

USS Gerald R. Ford gets under way from HII NNS, Oct. 25 (USN)

Published Oct 25, 2019 8:36 PM by The Maritime Executive

The troubled aircraft carrier USS Gerald R. Ford is back out on sea trials once more after 15 months of post-shakedown repairs, including the ongoing effort to commission her advanced weapons elevators. Four out of 11 are now functional and certified, according to the Navy.

To prepare for the trials, Ford carried out a five-day "Fast Cruise" simulation of going to sea earlier this week. “Here on Warship 78, we call this being ‘Warship Ready,’” said Capt. J.J. Cummings, Ford’s commanding officer. “Having our sailors sequestered in at-sea environment – living, eating and sleeping on the ship, allowed them to get a real glimpse of life at sea." (Ford was last at sea in July 2018.)

In the next sea trials phase, the crew will work with Huntington Ingalls Industries (HII) engineers and shipyard employees to test the systems that were repaired at Newport News over the past year. The Navy describes it as an opportunity to "fully evaluate whether the work performed . . . was completed satisfactorily."

The U.S. Navy began design work on the Ford in the early 2000s, the era of then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's "revolution in military affairs." In a "transformational leap," DoD elected to install multiple untested new technologies - an advanced dual-band radar, electromagnetically-actuated weapons elevators, electromagnetic aircraft catapults and electrically-driven arresting gear - in one first-in-class ship. Rather than evaluate and mature these technologies before construction, the Navy chose to conduct the program in parallel, with R&D and testing on some systems proceeding as the ship was built. 

Advance work began on USS Ford in 2005 for a planned 2015 delivery. However, the delivery schedule gradually slipped to 2017, and costs ballooned 20 percent to $12.9 billion - more than any nation has ever paid for a warship. Despite the cost, the Navy accepted her in an incomplete state and with known deficiencies, including problems with her catapult, arresting gear and elevators. Multiple additional issues with propulsion were discovered in sea trials, necessitating long post-shakedown repairs. Many of these issues have since been resolved, the Navy says, but with the extended timeline for repairs and testing, the Navy expects that USS Ford will not enter service until 2024 - six years behind schedule and almost two decades after the first construction began. Bloomberg reported Friday that Ford will require an additional $200 million in repair work before she finally enters service. 

USS Ford has attracted considerable scrutiny from Congress, and this week, the rhetoric grew heated in a hearing of the House Armed Services Readiness Subcommittee. On Tuesday, former Navy cruiser XO Congresswoman Elaine Luria (D-VA) described Ford as a “$13 billion nuclear-powered floating berthing barge." When she asked NAVSEA commander Vice Adm. Thomas Moore for an estimate of Ford's expected first deployment date, he told her that deployment should occur by 2024, six years later than planned. 

“I just truly don’t feel like this is a great investment as a taxpayer – $13 billion on a ship that’s going to deploy six years past its original design timeline,” Congresswoman Luria said. 

At a forum at the Brookings Institution on Wednesday, Secretary of the Navy Richard Spencer said that he was displeased by Rep. Luria's comments.

“Not one of her comments was, how can I help?” Spencer claimed.“I consider that disparaging. If she wants to get on board and help, we have open arms. We need everyone to realize that these are massively complex systems.” 

Spencer also criticized Huntington Ingalls Industries, the builder of USS Ford, and suggested that the yard deserves Congress' scrutiny as well. “I have an extra seat up there when I testify [before Congress], and I have not seen Huntington Ingalls Newport News called up on the hill to testify on the outrage that [Congress] sees on the Ford," he said. “Faith and confidence with HII senior management when it comes to this project is very, very low.”