Holding the Government Accountable

The Defense Secretary’s Peculiar Procurement Priorities

Mattis raps brass for Afghan uniforms while far-from-ready Navy carrier sails full steam ahead
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis at the commissioning of the USS Gerald R. Ford July 22. Navy photo / Gitte Schirrmacher

This column is a cheap shot.

Or maybe not. You decide.

It pivots on Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, and something he recently did—and, more importantly, something he didn’t do.

The newswires crackled July 24 after the Pentagon gave them an early peek at the scolding Mattis issued to Pentagon weapons buyers for spending more than $28 million extra on proprietary Afghan camouflaged uniforms (generating a bonus for its private designer), rather than cheaper camo designs already hanging in the U.S. military’s closet.

What we really need from our defense leaders is judgment, and an ability to stop sleepwalking through momentous decisions that often can’t be undone.

The purchase “serves as an example of a complacent mode of thinking,” Mattis wrote. It represents “an indication of a frame of mind—an attitude that can affect any of us at the Pentagon or across the Department of Defense—showing how those of us entrusted with supporting and equipping troops on the battlefield, if we let down our guard, can lose focus on ensuring their safety and lethality against the enemy.”

The press gobbled it up. The New York Times said Mattis “sharply criticized” the Pentagon brass for its dumb purchase, uncovered in a report by John Sopko, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction. “Mattis targeted the Pentagon’s bureaucracy,” the Washington Post added. USA Today said the defense chief had “blasted” his minions.

But Mattis’ walloping them for this is like shooting fish in a barrel. With a nuclear weapon. I’ve covered Jim Mattis for years and believed him to be a fine officer with the potential to become a great defense secretary. But squawking about this snafu is decidedly small-bore: any sentient human being knows it made no sense.

What we really need from our defense leaders is judgment, and an ability to stop sleepwalking through momentous decisions that often can’t be undone; the kinds of things many hoped Mattis, given his stature and smarts, would put the kibosh on.

While Mattis spanked his procurement czars July 21 for their fabric faux pas, he let the Navy, the very next day, get away with what the Pentagon’s former top weapons buyer likely would have called “acquisition malpractice.” Frank Kendall coined the term in 2012 after the Air Force, Marines and Navy decided to begin producing F-35 fighters while the government, and builder Lockheed Martin, were still developing it.

But that’s precisely what happened July 22, when the Navy—with President Trump on hand to do the honors, with Mattis alongside—commissioned the lead ship in a new class of aircraft carriers. A “Made in the USA” banner hung from the side of the USS Gerald R. Ford, built in Norfolk, Va., by Huntington Ingalls Industries. The commissioning came on the final day of the Trump Administration’s “Made in America” week, which highlighted U.S.-built products from all 50 states. Mattis hailed the “magnificent warship,” which Trump called “the newest, largest, and most advanced aircraft carrier in the history of this world.”

Photo of the  Commissioning Ceremony of the USS Gerald R. Ford with President Trump beside the ship
President Trump is greeted upon his arrival aboard the USS Gerald R. Ford for its commissioning ceremony July 22. (White House Photo by D. Myles Cullen)

So far, so good. Unfortunately, the just-commissioned flattop had never launched, or landed, a warplane ($13 billion for the vessel; $10 billion more for the planes).

The Ford isn’t just another in a long line of proven cookie-cutter carriers. It is the namesake and first of the Ford class, crammed with new, and unproven, technologies that makes the Navy’s commissioning of the carrier rather like buying a pig in a poke.

The last time the Navy launched a new class of carriers—the Nimitz class, 40 years ago—the service operated Vought A-7 Corsair attack planes, Grumman KA-6D tankers, McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II fighters, RA-5C Vigilante spy planes, Grumman EA-6B Prowler electronic-warfare planes and Grumman E-2 Hawkeye early-warning aircraft from its deck—all before the Navy commissioned it.

“Commissioning” means something specific in the U.S. Navy. “When the ship is fully ready for use by the Navy, it runs acceptance trials to see if it will perform according to specifications,” the Navy’s History and Heritage Command says. “When this has been done to the Navy's satisfaction, and any discrepancies have been set right, the Navy's representative signs a paper officially accepting it from the builder. By this time the prospective commanding officer and crew are on hand, and they then place the ship in commission. In a formal ceremony, the commanding officer reads his orders and assumes command, the colors are hoisted, and the ship then begins to function as a Navy command in its own right.”

Except that, having never launched or landed a warplane, there was no way the Ford had shown “it will perform according to specifications” and that “any discrepancies have been set right.”

Five days following the commissioning, on July 27, a Navy spokesman confirmed that no takeoffs and landings had occurred on the Ford. When might they take place? “We do have a timetable for testing the ship's systems,” he said, but “operational security” kept him from providing details. The next day, July 28, a Navy F-18 pilot landed and launched from the Ford for the first time using the carrier’s new systems.

The Ford’s new technologies include plane catapults powered by electricity rather than the traditional steam, and turbo-electric systems designed to bring landing warplanes to a swift and safe stop on the flight deck.

“Poor or unknown reliability of the newly designed catapults, arresting gear, weapons elevators, and radar, which are all critical for flight operations, could affect CVN 78’s ability to generate sorties, make the ship more vulnerable to attack, or create limitations during routine operations,” the Pentagon’s testing office said in its most recent report on the Ford. “Based on current reliability estimates, CVN 78 is unlikely to be able to conduct the type of high-intensity flight operations expected during wartime.”

The post-commissioning air op hasn’t swayed skeptics. “The proof that this launch and recovery solution is the solution won't come in a showpiece set of one or two demonstration launches,” says Craig Hooper, a naval expert and senior analyst with Gryphon Scientific in Takoma Park, Md. “It'll be when they show Ford can do this thousands of times while going few days without breaking either the launch or the recovery systems.”

The Ford’s development is so molasses-like that the General Accounting Office estimates that it will take another four years—nearly 10% of the carrier’s expected life—before the vessel is ready to sail in harm’s way.

GAO figure 3

Trump lauded the carrier despite his May criticism of its digitally-operated electric catapults. “It’s very complicated, you have to be Albert Einstein to figure it out,” he told my former colleagues at Time Magazine following his March tour of the ship, where he discussed the troubled system with the Ford’s crew. “I said `What system are you going to be’–`Sir, we’re staying with digital.’ I said `No you’re not. You going to goddamned steam, the digital costs hundreds of millions of dollars more money and it’s no good.’”

Never mind.

In keeping with the nation’s Potemkin sense of civilian control of the military, the Navy is pressing ahead with the more modern catapults.

What’s striking about the premature commissioning is how contrary it is to the way the military prefers to fight our wars, if not spend our money. When it comes to combat, the military hates making decisions driven by the calendar. They protested mightily, and rightly, when President Obama ordered a 33,000-strong troop surge into Afghanistan in 2009, while at the same time declaring they’d be back home by 2013. “You can’t win a war according to a calendar-based timetable,” U.S. military officers fumed at the time. “It has to be a condition-based withdrawal.”

Yet the U.S. Navy has just tossed the tried-and-true condition-based logic overboard when it commissioned the Ford before a single airplane has been launched from it, or landed on it. Not to put too fine a point on it, but isn’t that what aircraft carriers are for?

What’s really going on here? Beyond making for a fine final day for Trump’s “Made in America” week, the Navy accepted and commissioned the ship early to avoid breaking a cost ceiling on it imposed by Congress. “It is now using operations and maintenance dollars to repair a new ship,” says a long-time Navy officer, now retired. Not only isn’t the Ford ready for war, its use of O&M dollars to make her shipshape is sucking money from the Navy’s 10 other carriers, reducing their readiness.

Sailors man the rails of the USS Geral R. Ford
Sailors man the rails of the aircraft carrier USS Gerald R. Ford during the ship's commissioning ceremony at Naval Station Norfolk, Va., July 22, 2017. Navy photo by Julio Martinez Martinez

The key question, which has affected a lot of military procurements in recent years, is: why the rush? As stewards of taxpayer funds, why does the Navy want—and Mattis allow—the commissioning of a new class of aircraft carrier before a single flight to or from its deck? Given growing concerns that such 100,000-ton behemoths may be vulnerable to enemy missiles, one might think a go-slow approach makes more sense.

“The Ford-class carrier program is in much deeper trouble than the Navy and the DoD are willing to admit,” Dan Grazier and Pierre Sprey wrote in a recent report for the non-partisan Project on Government Oversight. “As further testing reveals further serious deficiencies, cost overruns will balloon and promised combat capabilities will shrink.”

The Pentagon dismisses such concerns. This commissioning, its enablers will say, is merely symbolic, despite the word’s historical meaning inside the Navy. But that doesn’t mean the rest of us—taxpayers, sailors, and yes, most importantly, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis—have to accept it.