Naval Air: The False Economy, False Hope Fords


October 10, 2020: Desperate to avoid running out of CVNs (nuclear-powered aircraft carriers), the U.S. Navy is considering keeping some of its older Nimitz class CVNs in service longer than planned because of delays getting the new Ford class CVNs working. As a result, the first Nimitz class ship, which was supposed to retire in 2017, is still at work. The second Nimitz, the Eisenhower, can remain in service until 2030 and so on. The navy also dropped plans to retire the eighth Nimitz (the Truman) instead of having it go through its mid-life refueling and refurbishment. Eliminating the refueling would mean the Truman would retire in 2022 instead of serving into the 2040s.

The Fords have become a major disaster rather than a more effective new carrier design. Several innovative new technologies were supposed to have made the Fords more effective and cheaper to operate. Two of those new technologies, EMALS (Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System) catapults/landing equipment and high-speed electromagnetic ammunition elevators (for getting explosive items to the deck more quickly), have failed. There are lesser problems with the nuclear propulsion system and the new radars, while some were modifications needed so that the new F-35C can operate from the Fords.

The first Ford was commissioned into service in 2017. That was a false start because with the EMALS and other problems this carrier is not expected to be fully capable until 2021 or 2022. Now the navy is considering only building four Fords if the many serious design and equipment problems are not resolved satisfactorily in the next few years. The needs ten new CVNs and Fords can’t do the job, another design will have to be used.

The second Ford (the USS Kennedy) is supposed to enter service in 2022. The next two Fords are scheduled to begin construction in 2022 and 2026. The Ford was to replace the first Nimitz, which entered service in 1975 and completed its midlife refueling and refit in 2001. The Nimitz is now scheduled for retirement in 2022 but could be kept in service a few years more.

Much of the Ford delays could have been avoided if many of these new technologies were not installed on the first of the Ford class. Originally these new technologies were to be introduced separately in the first three Fords. Those early CVNs could have the new tech installed during the major refurbishment/upgrade periods that take carriers out of service for a year or more every decade. Before construction began on Ford it was decided to try and save some money by introducing all this new tech in the first ship. That may still be cost savings in the long run but in the short run it exposes the navy and the shipyards that build its ships to more criticism for poor management and shoddy construction. That is nothing new, it’s been happening more and more since the 1970s. That is a key problem that is not getting tended to and keeps getting worse.

It wasn’t until February 2018 that the navy confirmed that it had major problems with the design and construction of its new EMALS catapults, then installed in the newly completed USS Ford (CVN 78) and the three other Ford-class carriers under construction. During sea trials, the Ford used EMALS heavily, as would be the case in combat and training operations and found EMALS less reliable than the older steam catapult. EMALS was also more labor-intense to operate and put more stress on launched aircraft than expected. Worse, due to a basic design flaw, if one EMALS catapult becomes inoperable, the other three catapults could not be used in the meantime as was the case with steam catapults. This meant that the older practice of taking one or more steam catapults offline for maintenance or repairs while at sea was not practical. The navy admitted that in combat if one or more catapults were rendered unusable they remained that way until it was possible to shut down all four catapults for repairs.

The landing and recovery system also had reliability problems, failing far more frequently than the older systems. In effect, these problems with launching and recovering aircraft make the Fords much less effective than the Nimitz class. The navy has long had a growing problem with developing new ships and technology and the Ford is the worst example to date. With no assurance as to when and to what extent the launch and recovery systems would be fixed, and be at least as effective as the older steam catapults, the navy was faced with a major crisis.

There is a critical need for new carriers. The first ship of the new class of carriers, the Ford is about the same length (333 meters/1,092 feet) and displacement (100,000 tons) of the previous Nimitz class but looks different. The most noticeable difference is that the island is set closer to the stern (rear) of the ship. The internal differences are much more obvious, including the power generation and electrical system. The Fords were not just replacements for the aging Nimitz class; they were designed to be cheaper to operate. There are a lot of visible changes to enhance habitability and make long voyages more tolerable.

Before the EMALS crises, the Ford was expected to cost nearly $14 billion. About 40 percent of that is for designing the first ship of the class, so the actual cost of the first ship (CVN 78) itself will be at least $9 billion and about the same for subsequent ships of the class. Except, that is, for the additional cost of fixing the EMALS problems. Against this, the navy expects to reduce the carrier's lifetime operating expenses by several billion dollars because of greatly reduced crew size. Compared to the Nimitz class, which cost over $5 billion each, the Fords will feel, well, kind of empty because of the automation and smaller crews. There will also be more computer networking, and robots, reducing the number of people constantly moving around inside a Nimitz class carrier (with a crew of 6,000). The most recent Nimitz class ships have a lot of this automation already but adding EMALS was considered too expensive because of the major engineer changes to the power plant and electrical systems. A lot of that is subject to change depending on what internal alterations are required to make the carrier work at least as well as the Nimitz class. So far that has turned out to be a lot more difficult than anyone expected.


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