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Boom Service? Navy Prefers to Pass For Now

Service wants to spend $25 billion before bomb tests to confirm whether its new carrier can survive such shocks
The Navy wants to delay shock tests, like this one on the USS Theodore Roosevelt in 1987, for at least six years. (Photo: U.S. Navy)

If you’re going to put all your eggs in one basket, doesn’t it make sense to make sure that they’re hard-boiled?

The U.S. Navy apparently doesn’t think so.

The Navy has asked Defense Secretary James Mattis to delay “shock testing” on the USS Gerald R. Ford for at least six years, until delivery of a second carrier in the $45.7 billion, three-flat top program. That would put the Ford, the first ship in a new carrier class crammed with unproven technologies, in harm’s way without tests designed to show how she performs in combat.

Shock tests basically involve setting off underwater depth charges close to the ship to see if all of its complex systems, when working together, will be able to keep working together after shaking. The Navy deleted funding for the test from its recently-released 2019 budget proposal.

The pending decision highlights a key and persistent Pentagon dilemma: rush a new program into the field absent required tests, or cross your fingers and hope that it won’t be put to the test—and fail—under fire.

The two senior members of the Senate Armed Services Committee have urged Mattis not to let the Navy get away with short-circuiting the tests on the Ford, officially known as CVN 78.

“Conducting full ship shock trials on CVN 78 will not only improve the design of future carriers, but also reduce the costs associated with retrofitting engineering changes,” Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Jack Reed, D-R.I., wrote to Mattis Feb. 8. “We continue to believe that reliability issues with unproven new technologies on CVN 78, including the catapults, arresting gear, radar and weapons elevators, as well as reliance on electricity rather than steam to power key systems, generate a great deal of war-fighting cost and schedule risk.”

The Navy currently has 11 carriers, including the Ford, which has to undergo “shakedown” cruises before its first deployment, slated for 2020. Last year, during a visit to the almost-finished Ford in Newport News, Va., President Trump called for “the 12-carrier Navy we need.”

Trump calls for 12 carrier Navy
President Trump calls for a 12-carrier Navy during a visit to the Ford in March, 2017. (Photo: U.S. Navy / Joshua Sheppard)

This really wouldn’t matter so much if we were talking about F-35 fighters (the Pentagon wants to buy nearly 2,500 of those). But the Navy—and the nation—is getting by with 11 aircraft carriers for now. Whether or not you think that is insufficient—or overkill—there’s plenty of room for skepticism over how well the new carrier will perform.

“Poor or unknown reliability of the newly designed catapults, arresting gear, weapons elevators, and radar, which are all critical for flight operations, could affect the ability of CVN 78 to generate sorties, make the ship more vulnerable to attack, or create limitations during routine operations,” Robert Behler, the Pentagon’s top weapons tester, said in his latest annual report, issued late last month. “The poor or unknown reliability of these critical subsystems is the most significant risk to CVN 78.”

The pending decision highlights a key and persistent Pentagon dilemma: rush a new program into the field absent required tests, or cross your fingers and hope that it won’t be put to the test—and fail—under fire.

Carrier backers want Mattis to waive the required testing because they believe the nation is better served with more carriers more quickly, even if the newest ones aren’t fully tested. “If Mattis decides to waive the trials, the Ford could be ready for its first deployment next year,” says Mackenzie Eaglen of the American Enterprise Institute. “If he instead decides to carry out the tests unnecessarily early, they will delay the ship by up to two years due to the disruptions caused to the Navy’s carrier deployment schedule." While such tests are not always carried out on the first ship in a class, the Ford’s new technologies argue for conducting such shock tests sooner rather than later.

Others disagree. Delaying the tests “would run the risk of sending the $13 billion Ford with 4,300 crew members into a situation where a single close-proximity explosion could render it useless and vulnerable to being sunk,” Dan Grazier of the Project on Government Oversight notes. “Moreover, if the tests later reveal fundamental design problems when they are finally completed, the Navy would have to pay for an expensive retrofit of the Ford; the second-in-class ship, the USS John F. Kennedy; and the third-in-class ship, the USS Enterprise, which would be underway by the time the tests finally took place.”

Defense old-timers (say, those dating back a couple of FYDPs, to Bush 2.0 or so) know that developing a weapon generally follows a predictable pattern: promises are made regarding its performance, cost and schedule, and usually fall short. Costly modifications to already-bought weapons, and blueprint tweaks for those yet to be built, help narrow, but rarely close, the shortfalls. Such rosy projections—some would call it fibbing—hardly ever lead to penalties against those involved (taxpayers excluded, of course).

Key tests like this “Full Ship Shock Trial” (FSST) are intended to pinpoint problems early. But the Ford class, like the F-35, suffers from too much “concurrency.” That means their production began before their development and testing were complete, an asinine approach that would only be compounded for the Ford carriers by delaying their shock tests.

Bottom line, from here: the Navy can’t have it both ways. It’s always quick to roll out the rhetoric when trouble breaks out within range of an F-18 (“The first question the president always asks is, `Where’s the closest carrier?’” I’ve heard many admirals say). But at the same time it declares there’s no need to battle test this bulwark of what the Navy likes to call its “forward presence.”

There’s also a more pernicious element at play here for those keeping score at home.

The Navy wants to steam full-speed ahead because of what it, and its boosters, claim is the “carrier gap” the U.S. is now experiencing. In a nutshell, the carrier gap is the difference between what the U.S. military wants and what the U.S. military has. “Fixing the Navy’s Carrier Gap,” is a typical headline in the national-security press, questioning the service’s inability to sail “without its required aircraft carrier in the Middle East and Europe.”

Did you note that deft bit of nautical legerdemain? “Required”?

Unlike the Pentagon’s earlier false claims of a bomber gap followed by a missile gap—used to crank up U.S. military spending during the Cold War to keep pace with a grossly-exaggerated Soviet threat—the carrier gap can’t be measured with a binary yardstick. It doesn’t pit Washington against Moscow (or anyone else, for that matter). The carrier gap doesn’t measure the U.S. Navy’s carriers against a possible foe’s flat tops and conclude there’s a gap. Rather, it’s an artificial construct pitting U.S. desire with U.S. reality (the surprising reality is that in 2015, the Navy was able to provide only 44 percent of the ships the Pentagon’s regional commanders around the world wanted).

It could just as fairly be called a “carrier surplus.” After all, no other nation has more than two carriers, and the U.S. edge nearly doubles when the U.S. Marines’ smaller amphibious aircraft carriers (roughly the same size as non-U.S. carriers) are added to the U.S. fleet.

Amphibious assault ship
NOT an aircraft carrier. The Marine amphibious assault ship in the Persian Gulf last November. (Photo: U.S. Navy / Alexander Ventura)

But the Pentagon prefers this salt-water ruse based on its assessment of what it needs to patrol the world’s oceans. It has merit, sure, but it’s not a requirement. It’s a political decision made by politicians that politicians can change.

But the notion is gaining traction. The phrase “carrier gap” generates 35,000 Google hits. It’s catching up to its antecedents (the missile gap clocks in at 87,000, and the bomber gap pops up 61,000 times). But those older fables, of course, have also been around for more than a half-century.

The Navy, for its part, has only begun to fight.

It was less than three years ago that Frank Kendall, then the Pentagon’s top weapons buyer, gave the Navy its marching orders. “Execute the FSST for the CVN 78 Class using the lead ship, CVN 78,” he told the sea service in 2015. “The FSST shall be conducted prior to the initial operational deployment of CVN 78."

The Navy, always willing to feign respect for civilian authority, duly saluted. “The Navy's been notified of the decision regarding Full Ship Shock Trials,” a Navy spokeswoman said at the time, “and will move forward as directed.”

Until it thinks it can get away with reversing course.

Navy F-18
A Navy F-18 over the Ford during sea trials for the carrier in the Atlantic last summer. (Photo: U.S. Navy / Erik Hildebrandt)