WASHINGTON: The Navy’s coming request for the 2020 fiscal year is still under wraps, but one important piece of the Navy’s future plans appears increasingly certain: the service will commit billions to buy two new Ford-class aircraft carriers under the same contract. While most of that money won’t be spent in ’20, it’s still a tremendous long-term commitment that, advocates say, should save 5 to 10 percent over buying each carrier separately.
The Navy says that the long-troubled Ford program has turned a corner, and it is pushing ahead with remaining fixes while planning to save up to $4 billion by buying the next two flattops on a single massive contract. That mega-deal would remove uncertainty for the builder, HII’s Newport News Shipbuilding, and help keep production lines humming with no expensive stop-and-start in construction or ramping up and down of supply chains, which spreads across dozens of states.
Congress first has to review the plan over the next 30 days before Navy can award the contract.
News of the potential buy — which was expected by the end of the year — came from Virginia Senator Tim Kaine, who put out a statement on New Year’s Eve saying he was “thrilled the Navy has decided to pursue a block buy for aircraft carriers, something I’ve been advocating to save billions in taxpayer dollars and offer more certainty to the Hampton Roads defense community.”
Kaine, a longtime proponent of the block buy, also represents the state where the work will be done. “This smart move will save taxpayer dollars and help ensure the shipyards can maintain a skilled workforce to get the job done,” he said.
Virginia Congressman Rob Wittman, outgoing chairman of the Seapower and Projection Forces Subcommittee, said he’s “thrilled” about the notification which will allow the Navy “to build to a fleet of 12 aircraft carriers and 355 ships.” Wittman attached an amendment to the FY 2019 DoD appropriations bill calling for the dual buy, which he says “will not only save the taxpayers $4 billion, it provides important certainty to our defense industrial base that build and maintain these ships.”
Wittman was the author of the “Securing the Homeland by Increasing our Power on the Seas Act,” which transformed the Navy’s goal of 355 ships into official government policy. President Trump signed the bill into law in 2017.
Both senators said the contract will keep the ships at or under the construction cap set by Congress of $12.9 billion each.
Last May, however, the first ship of the class, USS Gerald R. Ford, blew past that cap by $120 million thanks to a litany of fixes identified by shipbuilder Huntington Ingalls Industries., including replacing propulsion components damaged in a previous failure, extending the repair schedule to 12 months from the original eight, and correcting problems with the ship’s eleven Advanced Weapons Elevators.
The elevators, used to bring munitions from below deck up top for installation on aircraft, are powered by magnets as opposed to cables, and were supposed to be installed by the ship’s delivery date in May 2017, but issues have delayed their completion.
Navy spokesman Capt. Danny Hernandez told me that the eleven elevators remain “in varying levels of construction, testing and operations,” and the first one was turned over to the crew in December. The plan is to complete installation and testing of the elevators before the ship’s scheduled “sail away date” in July.
Hernandez added that “there will be some remaining certification documentation that will be performed for 5 of the 11 elevators after” July, and “a dedicated team is engaged on these efforts and will accelerate this certification work and schedule where feasible.”
James Geurts, assistant secretary of the Navy for research, development and acquisition, promised a Congressional panel in November that the Ford would leave HII’s Newport News shipyard with all systems in working order.
“I would say of all of the technologies on the CVN 78, of which there were many we proved out on this lead ship, the weapons elevator is the last one that we need to get tied up and work our way through,” Geurts said. “We are making progress,” he said.
The second ship of the class, CVN 79, USS John F. Kennedy, is currently under construction.
Huntington spokesperson Beci Brenton said in a statement the company is “pleased to have come to an agreement with the Navy regarding a two-ship acquisition approach for CVN 80 and 81, a significant step toward building these ships more affordably. Although there is more work to be done it is important to note that the multi-ship purchase of aircraft carriers helps stabilize the Newport News Shipbuilding workforce, enables the purchase of material in quantity, and permits a fragile supplier base of more than 2,000 in 46 states to phase work more efficiently.”
After decades of dominance however, the Ford-class carriers might be the last of the line for US nuclear-powered supercarriers, given the increasing threat being presented by land-based “ship-killer” standoff weapons being fielded by China and Russia.
Speaking at a Heritage Foundation event last month, Bryan Clark, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, said that optimistically, a carrier strike group could likely knock down 450 incoming missiles, but “that is not enough. You are looking at a threat that is at least 600, and maybe more weapons” that the Chinese can launch from their coast on short notice.
Jerry Hendrix, vice president of the Telemus Group, added that the threat could be somewhat mitigated by keeping ships father from shore and putting more drones in the air both as scouts and attack aircraft. The “carrier air wing must increase its range by investing in an unmanned, air combat strike platform,” Hendrix said.
Any moves to increase range must first fight for primacy with the navy’s other massive investment in hulls, from new aircraft carriers to Columbia-class submarines to a new frigate. When the 2020 budget comes out next month, we’ll likely have a better idea of what the Navy is planning.