It’s been 14 years since the Navy decided to go forward with a new cutting-edge class of aircraft carriers. Construction of the first ship in that class, the USS Gerald R. Ford, began in August 2005. But its construction has been beset with problems. Originally scheduled to first deploy in 2018, the Navy now says it might not able to do so until 2024.
In addition to being behind schedule, the program is $8 billion over budget. The cost to U.S. taxpayers has gone from $5.1 billion to $13 billion. And serious questions remain about the capabilities and reliability of many of the carrier’s new technologies and systems — especially its advanced weapons elevators. Until recently, only four of the Ford’s 11 elevators were certified to be operational.
The ongoing snafu had Sen. John McCain, former chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, livid. The now-deceased retired naval aviator called the delays unacceptable and entirely avoidable. “After more than $2.3 billion in cost overruns ... the taxpayers deserve to know when [the USS Ford] will actually be delivered,” McCain fumed back in 2016.
Heaven only knows what “Maverick” would say today if he knew what little progress has been made. Thankfully, the mission to get the ship operational and hold the Navy’s feet to the fire has a new champion in Elaine Luria, a Democrat who represents Virginia’s 2nd District. At a recent House hearing with Naval Sea Systems Command head Vice Adm. Tom Moore and other officials, Luria, herself a former surface warfare officer, had some tough questions.
Calling the Ford a “$13 billion nuclear-powered floating berthing barge,” she pressed for answers not only on the Ford’s delays but the overall (non)readiness of the Navy’s entire East Coast carrier fleet. Ongoing electrical issues with the USS Harry S Truman have prevented that ship from deploying on time. It might be ready to get underway next month, but that is far from certain. The USS George H.W. Bush and the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower both are undergoing repairs and currently nondeployable. The USS John C. Stennis also is sitting in port at Norfolk awaiting its turn for a refit.
As a result of the carrier shortage, the Navy announced that the USS Abraham Lincoln, currently operating in the Arabian Sea, would extend its deployment for an unspecified amount of time. The ship was supposed to return this week. That won’t happen. Thousands of sailors, hoping to be home by the holidays after seven long months at sea, have had to reschedule their lives. You won’t hear them complain — that’s not what they do, but it’s hard on them nonetheless.
Navy Secretary Richard V. Spencer has pushed back on Luria’s criticisms. Speaking at the Brookings Institution on Wednesday, Spencer noted, “Not one of her comments was: ‘How can I help?’” The secretary said he would welcome her assistance with open arms. He acknowledged that the Ford program has had its share of setbacks and that the Navy isn’t without blame, but he also pointed out that Congress’ inability to regularly pass an annual defense budget also is at fault.
Continuing resolutions (CRs), issued in lieu of a budget, cap spending and hobble the military’s ability to perform timely maintenance and award new contracts. In 2017, CRs cost the Navy $4 billion, Spencer said. “So, when I get accused of a cost overrun on the Ford by my board of directors [Congress] and they go and burn $4 billion, I’m confused as to who is responsible for wasting or dibbling with resources. ... I think that they go home on a vacation — or recess, excuse me — and don’t do the business that has to be done at hand. We’re still working here. Our uniformed members and civilian teammates are still out, standing the watch. Why can’t they?” He raises valid points.
For more than 80 years, aircraft carriers have been the core of the U.S. Navy’s forward-operating mission. Because of their ability to rapidly project military power to almost any point on the globe, the massive ships play a key role in protecting the national interests of the United States and its allies. Most military strategists agree that to carry out that mission effectively, the Navy requires a minimum of 11 carriers. The Navy has been operating with 10 carriers — only four of which are operational, apparently — since 2014. That’s unacceptable. Yes, the Navy needs to get its act together. But don’t overlook Congress’ role in this sad state of affairs. Both institutions owe the American taxpayer abject apologies for this very expensive and dangerous boondoggle. Stop pointing fingers and work together to get the situation remedied now.
— Robin Beres