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USS Gerald Ford: A very, very expensive aircraft carrier

By DANIEL DE LUCE
November 9, 2013

Susan Ford Bales, daughter of late President Gerald Ford, christened Navy's newest aircraft carrier, named after her dad. (US Navy/Joshua J. Wahl)

Susan Ford Bales, daughter of late President Gerald Ford, christened Navy’s newest aircraft carrier, named after her dad. (US Navy/Joshua J. Wahl)

The American navy on Saturday christened a new aircraft carrier, the USS Gerald Ford, a colossal ship plagued by equally huge cost overruns, at a time of growing budget pressures.

The daughter of the former US president, Susan Ford Bales, broke the traditional champagne bottle at a ceremony in the port of Newport News, Virginia, near the sprawling Norfolk naval base.

“May God bless and watch over the USS Gerald R. Ford, those who built her and the men and women who will sail her into harm’s way,” a teary Bales said moments before shattering the bottle against the hulking ship on a sparkling autumn morning.

A parade of dignitaries, friends and relatives of the late president spoke at the christening, which was also a celebration of the life of Ford, the 38th US president.

“He was a man of courage and solid values, and I know the men and women who sail this ship will bring those same qualities in their service to our nation,” former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told the audience.

Other speakers included Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell and Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin.

The pomp belied problems with the project, however, which is only 70 percent complete, with delivery postponed until February 2016.

And faced with automatic budget cuts and the need to fund other programs, including submarines, the Navy’s chief of staff, Admiral Jonathan Greenert has warned the service may have to delay completing the Ford “by two years.”

The move would force the United States to rely on a fleet of 10 existing carriers and means “lowering surge capacity” in a crisis, he added.

US law requires the military to maintain 11 aircraft carriers, but at the moment only 10 are available since the retirement of the USS Enterprise in 2012.

The current carrier fleet, launched between 1975 to 2009, are Nimitz-class ships, but the Ford, or CVN 78, represents a new class of carrier with a new design, which will be followed by the John F. Kennedy and new Enterprise carriers. All have a similar length of about 1,090 feet (330 meters).

The Ford-class design is supposed to allow for 25 percent more sorties for the fighter jets and helicopters on board, generate more electrical power and produce more fresh water from desalination systems, allowing sailors to take comfortable showers.

“The Ford class is designed to provide increased war-fighting capability with approximately 700 fewer crew members,” reducing the cost of maintaining the ship, the Navy said in a statement.

While fewer sailors will be needed to run the carrier, the cost of building the ship has sky-rocketed. Since the start of the contract in 2008, construction costs jumped 22 percent over the scheduled budget to $12.8 billion in total.

And the Navy’s estimate “does not include $4.7 billion in research and development costs,” according to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), which provides financial data to lawmakers.

Navy officers say such cost overruns are typical for a new series of ship, and that the price of subsequent vessels in the class tends to drop.

But at a time of budget austerity, the mushrooming price tag is a source of irritation.

The navy and the defense contractor “must still overcome significant technology development, design and construction challenges,” the Government Accountability Office, an investigative arm of Congress, wrote in September.

The GAO questioned the decision to go ahead with new technological systems for the ship before proving they worked, an approach that “introduces risk of late and costly design changes and rework.”

A new electromagnetic catapult to launch aircraft, new radar and new arresting gear to catch planes landing are also facing technical delays and higher costs.

“But even after the ship’s commission, several key ship systems will continue to face significant reliability shortfalls that will likely increase costs to the government and limit the ship’s mission effectiveness,” the GAO said.

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Copyright  © 2013 Capitol Hill Blue

Copyright  © 2013 AFP

 

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