The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) is recommending the U.S. Navy delay the detail design and construction contract for the Ford-class CVN-79 John F. Kennedy aircraft carrier until it sorts out some programmatic shortfalls.

The Navy and Defense Department (DOD) have rejected the recommendation, which, GAO contends, is a mistake. “DOD’s current schedule for awarding this contract undermines the government’s negotiating position,” GAO says in a new report.

The Navy plans to spend more than $43 billion to produce three Ford-class aircraft carriers, GAO notes. The lead ship, CVN-78 Ford, is under construction, and preparation work is under way for the second, CVN-79. The ships will feature new technologies designed to increase capability and reduce crew size, compared to existing Nimitz-class carriers.

But the program has been stalled from the start. One of the problems, Navy officials say, is that instead of stretching out technological improvements across the entire class as initially planned, a decision was made before the Obama administration to truncate that schedule and include most of the hardest improvements on the lead ship.

“The Navy faces technical, design, and construction challenges to completing Gerald R. Ford (CVN-78) that have led to significant cost increases and reduced the likelihood that a fully functional ship will be delivered on time,” GAO reports. “The Navy has achieved mixed progress to date developing CVN-78’s critical technologies, such as a system intended to more effectively launch aircraft from the ship. In an effort to meet required installation dates aboard CVN-78, the Navy has elected to produce some of these systems prior to demonstrating their maturity — a strategy that GAO’s previous work has shown introduces risk of late and costly design changes and rework, and leaves little margin to incorporate additional weight growth in the ship.”

In addition, GAO says, “Progress in constructing CVN-78 has been overshadowed by inefficient out-of-sequence work, driven largely by material shortfalls, engineering challenges, and delays developing and installing critical technology systems. These events are occurring in a constrained budget environment, even as lead ship costs have increased by over 22% since construction authorization in fiscal year 2008 — to $12.8 billion. Additional increases could follow due to uncertainties facing critical technology systems and shipbuilder underperformance.”

GAO says the Secretary of Defense should take several actions “aimed at ensuring Ford-class carrier acquisitions are supported by sound requirements and a comprehensive testing strategy.” For example, the Navy should conduct a cost-benefit analysis of required capabilities and associated costs, GAO says.

“The Navy’s strategy for providing timely demonstration of CVN-78 capabilities is hampered by post-delivery test plan deficiencies, Joint Strike Fighter aircraft delays, and reliability shortfalls affecting key ship systems,” GAO reports. “Additional risk is introduced due to the Navy’s plan to conduct integration testing of key systems with the ship at the same time as initial operational test and evaluation.”