Aircraft Carrier “Birthing Pains”


2013-11-22 by Scott C. Truver

Rear Admiral Wayne E. Meyer, the “father” of the Aegis Weapon System, often exclaimed, “There is nothing more complex than the design, engineering and construction of a warship!”

That complexity is at its most extreme in the case of America’s nuclear-powered aircraft carriers (CVNs). 

And this is particularly so in the design, engineering and construction of the lead warship in a new class of CVNs.  That complexity and first-in-line status almost always contributes to “birthing pains,” that is, challenges in design, equipment, costs and schedule.

Many a U.S. Navy warship class––harkening back to the six frigates first authorized in 1794––has experienced “birthing pains.”  This has held true through much more recent shipbuilding programs: Ticonderoga (CG 47) and Arleigh Burke (DDG 51) Aegis cruisers and destroyers, San Antonio (LPD 17) amphibious landing-platform dock ships, Virginia (SSN 21) nuclear-powered attack submarines, and the Freedom (LCS 1) and Independence (LCS 2) Littoral Combat Ships.

Virtually every lead ship has encountered “bugs” in design and equipment that contributed to cost growth and missed schedule.

And yet, once the “bugs” were “exterminated,” the Navy’s warships carried out sometimes daunting operational taskings during decades-long service lives.

So it has already been encountered in the Navy’s next-generation, Ford (CVN 78)-class carriers.

Schedules have slipped and costs have increased.  Ford was christened on 9 November 2013, four months behind the original schedule and with total cost capped at $12.8 billion.  Importantly, however, that top-line price includes $3.3 billion in non-recurring design and engineering costs that will be spread across the ten carriers in the plan––making Ford’s baseline cost actually $9.5 billion.

The aircraft carrier USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN 78) sits in dry dock 12 at Newport News Shipbuilding waiting to be christened. Ford is the first of a new class of aircraft carriers replacing the Nimitz-class carrier launched in 1972. Credit: Navy Media Content Services, 11/8/13
The aircraft carrier USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN 78) sits in dry dock 12 at Newport News Shipbuilding waiting to be christened. Ford is the first of a new class of aircraft carriers replacing the Nimitz-class carrier launched in 1972. Credit: Navy Media Content Services, 11/8/13

CVN 78’s acquisition cost was originally pegged at $8.1B, but that was determined before the additional cost to engineer the dual-band radar (DBR) and the need to increase the reliability of the advanced electro-magnetic aircraft launch system (EMALS) were factored into the design-to-delivery equation.

While the Navy’s goal must certainly be to minimize cost growth, the 17% cost increase for CVN 78 is not unusual.

Indeed, it turns out to be better than many other U.S. defense programs, some of which have experienced over-runs on the order of 30%, according to Frank Kendall, Under Secretary of Defense (Acquisition, Technology and Logistics).  Nor has this been consigned only to initial developmental phases of programs.  “We tend to over-run our production programs by about 10 percent,” he remarked in July 2013.

As with every lead ship, the testing and delivery process for CVN 78 will uncover some unintended consequences of design decisions made along the way.  

For example, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) in a September 2013 report raised concerns about lead-ship testing and reliability of advanced systems in the first two Ford CVNs, which the Navy and the shipbuilder are addressing.  They will all be fixed, leading to a very capable platform in the fleet, and even further improvement on CVN 79 and 80.

Furthermore, suggestions that the Navy should have delayed starting CVN 78’s construction until the design was completed runs counter to the reality that the lead ship––like all complex warships––is in a sense a “design” asset, perhaps even a “prototype.”

In that regard, the Navy is using it to work out the bugs and produce follow-on CVNs with minimal design, equipment, costs and schedule challenges. 

The Ford class will bring greater capabilities compared to the last ship of the ten-carrier Nimitz (CVN 68) class, which first entered service in 1975:  the USS George H.W. Bush (CVN 77), commissioned in 2009.

According to Ronald O’Rourke, the Congressional Research Service’s naval analyst, the CVN 78 design incorporates several improvements, including features permitting the ship to generate about 33% more aircraft sorties per day, three times the electrical power for supporting ship systems, and features permitting the ship to be operated by several hundred fewer sailors than CVN 77, significantly reducing lifecycle operating and support costs.

Taking the longer view, the complexity of the carrier’s engineering contributes to projections that each ship will save some $4 billion in maintenance and manpower costs over its 50-year expected service life.

And, if past is prologue, these warships will operate several generations of manned and unmanned aircraft armed with a broad spectrum of weapons and sensors.

In short, there is no more complex system-of-systems process than the design, engineering and building of a nuclear-propelled aircraft carrier. 

In CVN 78 and 79, the Navy has bounded the challenges of “birthing pains,” and is continuing on course to ensure warfighting readiness for the next 80 years.

Dr. Truver is Director, TeamBlue National Security Programs, Gryphon Technologies LC, Washington D.C.

Editor’s Note: In our interview with Captain Chris Mercer, USN, Amphibious Ships Program Manager, Mercer highlighted the cross learning going on between the USS America and the USS Ford. 

SLD: I assume that your efforts here are informing similar efforts for the folks building the new large deck carrier, the USS Ford?

Mercer:  It is.  It’s happening every day and with formal airship integrations, once a quarter to share all the things that we’re learning as we are moving both our programs mutually forward. 

It is important to understand as well that both new classes of ships will be flying 21st century aviation assets and shaping 21st concepts of operations, and not simply flying legacy aircraft. The designs of the ships must take this into account or they will be unable to take advantage of the dynamics of innovation in the naval air enterprise. 

In our interview with now Vice Admiral Moran, the Admiral highlighted the key role the Ford would be in working with a re-shaped airwing, driven by the integration with the F-35C, a software upgradeable aircraft, and laying the foundation for the airwing after next.

Moran highlighted the importance of the Ford within the shaping of 21st century concepts of distributed operations, a key trajectory for the reshaping of US strategy in the Pacific.

Our new book looks at the emergence of this strategy.

We recently interviewed, General “Hawk” Carlisle, the head of the US Air Force in the Pacific, who focused on the shaping of a distributed operations strategy and the role of the new carrier in that strategy as well. We will publish this interview next month.