Building, fixing carrier fleet remains U.S. priority
With sequestration putting a crimp on most of the Pentagon's major military programs, the U.S. Navy continues to whittle away at the costs of building its next-generation aircraft carriers.
Scrutiny is being focused on the CVN-78 Gerald Ford, the lead ship of a class of new carriers that includes a set of major technologies such as an electromagnetic aircraft launch system (Emals), dual-band radar (DBR) and advanced aircraft landing arresting gear.
Emals is tested and proven, says Rear Adm. Thomas Moore, program executive officer for aircraft carriers. DBR components have undergone some trials, and more tests are scheduled for the whole radar system.
Moore tells Aviation Week that Emals was his “No. 1 technology concern” two years ago. Constant ground-based testing has shown the technology is sound and reliable, he says.
The Navy is now resuming DBR testing. “We have arrays at Wallops Island [Va.],” Moore says. “They should ring out any problems there.”
Thecannot afford to have any operational issues with the radar. “It's integral for ship defense. It also takes the place of the air traffic control radar.” Moore notes. “I have to have it.” He adds that the arresting gear “now has most of my attention.”
The gear testing is behind schedule due in part to discovery that the “water twister,” a component that helps absorb the energy of a landing aircraft, was initially “under-designed,” Moore says. He adds that it is “the one system we haven't had a chance to fully test out,” but that the Navy has developed a plan to catch up on the testing.
The Ford is scheduled to be christened Nov. 9. The class is highly dependent on electric automated systems meant to cut down on crew size and, therefore, the life-cycle costs of the ship.
That electric-ship design, Moore says, will mean the Ford will have to undergo “the most challenging test program” for a Navy ship, slated to last about 28 months.
The new systems are meant to make the ship more efficient and, over the long-term, more cost-effective, but they are expensive to buy. The Navy expects Congress to approve a new Ford construction cap this year of nearly $12.9 billion, according to Moore.
“The Ford is in the yard and in the testers' hands,” Moore says. “The principal focus now is: What can I do to get the 79 under contract? We've got to drive affordability into that ship. We've got to change the way we do business. We can't just build 79 the way we built 78 and expect to get cost out.”
One of the best ways to cut costs is to ramp up production, but Navy officials know there is no returning to the heydays of the 1970s and '80s, when the service enjoyed what amounted to a five-carrier production line.
The Navy and builder—Huntington Ingalls Industries' Newport News Shipbuilding—have a better starting point with 79 than they had with 78, Moore says, with a complete design, more complete materials set and Ford's lessons learned. But they will need more. “The shipbuilder and I looked at other yards to see how we could build 79 differently. Other shipyards did more work earlier in the process—and they could do it faster.”
Moore acknowledges that carriers are not assembly-line projects. “But clearly there are big pieces of the ship that are similar, almost like an assembly line,” he says.
Newport News can fashion worker units similar to those in an assembly-line plant, he suggests, and points out how successful Bath Iron Works was in employing a “vertical-build” concept for thedestroyer.
“They leave a whole side open,” Moore says. Workers have easier access to larger ship areas. When the work is done, he says, the yard just “slides over and mates” the remaining ship section.
“In some areas on the carrier, especially in the bow sections, we can do vertical-build strategies,” he says.
By looking to compete some carrier work that is common to other ships in the Navy, such as the command-and-control systems, Moore says he also is trying to create “islands of competition.” Still, one of the most effective ways is drive down costs is to offer financial rewards for the contractor. “The best way,” Moore says, “is to put them on share line that rewards them.”
Despite the high prices for constructing and maintaining these ships, the cost to build or overhaul the carrier fleet is worth it, he says. “We are a carrier nation.”