The Navy's put down a 'significant bet' on the $13 billion USS Gerald R Ford, which some say is a risky gamble

Key Points
  • The newest and most expensive carrier ever entered the U.S. Navy fleet Saturday, nearly three years behind schedule and costing about $2.4 billion above plan.
  • When building the USS Gerald R. Ford carrier, the Navy ditched battle-tested features found on previous carriers and instead went with more expensive technology that hasn't always worked out as expected.
  • The ship isn't expected to be fully operational until at least 2020, and its controversial catapult system hasn't launched an actual aircraft at sea.
In this handout photo provided by the U.S. Navy, sailors aboard the aircraft carrier Pre-Commissioning Unit (PCU) Gerald R. Ford (CVN 78) man the rails as the ship departs Huntington Ingalls Industries Newport News Shipbuilding for builder's sea trials off the U.S. East Coast on April 8, 2017 in Newport News, Virginia.
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The newest and most expensive aircraft carrier ever built entered the U.S. Navy fleet Saturday, but almost three years behind schedule and billions of dollars over its estimated budget.

With Saturday's commissioning, the carrier will go back into testing and training, and isn't expected to be fully operational until 2020 at the earliest. The ship's catapult has yet to launch an actual aircraft at sea and the vessel has only had helicopters land on its deck.

Although it has yet to be put to the test, some already say the USS Gerald R. Ford is an example of the Navy's costly and risky bet on "immature" technology.

Experts say the Navy's decision to roll out some untested technologies in its next-generation classes of ships has been a costly lesson. For example, the new Ford aircraft carrier going into the Navy fleet cost nearly $13 billion, or around $2.4 billion above plan.

Proud day for @USNavy and nation as we commission #USSGeraldRFord (CVN 78) - new capabilities Ford brings will transform naval warfare

The Navy "made a significant bet on the newest and latest cutting-edge technology, and it bet that all of those technologies would mature as these platforms were scheduled to come online," said Jerry Hendrix, senior fellow and director of the Defense Strategies and Assessments Program at the Center for a New American Security, a non-partisan Washington think tank.

Hendrix added, "Unfortunately some of those technologies did not mature. Hence, we're seeing some delays in some critical programs, including the new Ford-Class carrier."

Although years behind schedule, the Ford carrier was formally commissioned into the Navy's fleet Saturday in a ceremony in Virginia, which was attended by President Donald Trump. The president had previously visited the carrier in March.

In remarks Saturday, Trump called the Ford carrier "the newest, largest and most advanced aircraft carrier in the history of this world."

When building the new Ford carrier, the Navy ditched the steam-powered catapult system found on the older Nimitz-Class carriers and went instead with a electro-magnetic aircraft launch system. Similarly, the Navy went with an updated arresting gear to catch planes landing on the ship's deck.

We want the best equipment but we want it built ahead of schedule and we want it built under budget.
President Donald Trump

The Ford is the first new design of an aircraft carrier in 40 years. Last month, acting Navy Secretary Sean Stackley conceded costs of the carriers were tough to swallow, but insisted the service (and shipbuilding industry) planned to learn from past missteps. Meanwhile, the maker of the new digital catapult, General Atomics, claims on its webpage the system's benefits include a "reduced manning and life-cycle cost."

The technology replaced the battle-tested steam catapult that had been used for decades to launch planes. As it turns out, though, the commander-in-chief is not at all a fan of the supercarrier's technology. In a May interview, Trump told Time magazine in an interview that the new digital power system "costs hundreds of millions of dollars more money and it's no good."

Similarly, the Navy has faced cost overruns and other problems with other new classes of warships, including internal electrical issues with the Zumwalt-class destroyer, and struggles with the controversial Littoral Combat Ship program.

Trump alluded to military costs and program delays in his remarks Saturday, but didn't single out the Ford carrier.

"We do not want cost overruns," the president said. "We want the best equipment but we want it built ahead of schedule and we want it built under budget."

'Going for broke'

Mandy Smithberger, director of the Straus Military Reform Project at the Project On Government Oversight, said some of the mistakes made by the Navy on big-ticket programs have been self-inflicted. The service's tendency to "develop really complex technology that's expensive to maintain and not reliable," has been a major drawback.

Added Smithberger, "It's not necessarily that it's new technology but it's immature — so it has to be proven technology."

Some analysts said the new ideas for the next-generation ships originated in the 1990s, when there was a "go for broke" mindset by some decision makers.

In the case of the Ford-Class carrier, the Navy decided to make all of the key changes in new technology upfront on the first ship in the class, rather than wait for successive carriers. The Navy plans to spend around $43 billion on the first three Ford-Class aircraft carriers.

At the same time, the Navy and other services have faced fiscal challenges due to the ongoing effect of the budget caps signed into law six years ago.

"The Budget Control Act, as far as it pertains to defense, was wrong-minded and that should not have been systematically reducing defense spending," said Brian Slattery, a policy analyst for national security at Washington-based Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.

He also said the inability of Congress to pass regular budgets is "very disruptive" to Navy and other service programs.

For the Navy, though, the budget situation is particularly pressing because of Trump's stated goal for a larger Navy fleet.

As a GOP candidate last year, Trump pledged the Navy would build 350 surface ships and submarines. He has since accepted the Navy's new force structure goal of a fleet of 355 ships — up from the battle force of 276 ships as of Friday.

However, reaching the Navy goal could cost approximately $400 billion more over 30 years than the service's previously stated force goal of 308 ships, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

Based on CBO's calculations, the Navy would need to buy around 329 new ships over 30 years to reach the 355-ship fleet. That compares with the 254 ships it estimates would be bought under the Navy's prior force goal.

"Cost is probably the biggest challenge reaching the larger fleet size," said Smithberger. "You'd have to increase Pentagon spending a lot to afford everything that they're trying to buy. It will require cutting other services or other Navy priorities, including airplanes."

Geopolitical concerns

Yet the time it will take to reach a 355-ship Navy also is a concern, given signs the Chinese are aggressively ramping up their own naval forces. Separately, Russia is undergoing a modernization plans of its own, including adding advanced nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines to its fleet.

"The Chinese are coming hard, meaning they are going for mass numbers and new advanced technology," said Hendrix, of the Center for a New American Security.

"The Russians have made decisions to invest in fairly exquisite platforms, like the new Yasen-Class submarine, a nuclear powered, fast-attack boat which is very advanced," he added. "And if they got two or three of those loose in the Atlantic, and we didn't know where they were, it would cause real complications for the United States as well as NATO."

In April, the nonpartisan CBO estimated the earliest the Navy could reach the 355-ship goal was by 2035, though it cautioned that 15-year buildup forecast was based on the service getting "sufficient funding." The CBO also estimates the cost to build, crew and operate the larger fleet would average $102 billion annually through 2047.

Regardless, Hendrix suggests there is perhaps a faster way to reach the 355-ship fleet size but not necessarily by adding newly constructed ships. Instead, he suggests the Navy might want to consider taking ships out of mothballs and keeping others in service longer to maintain the 355-ship fleet.

Others are not so sure it makes sense to keep ships in the fleet longer than they are scheduled.

"You can't just run the same ships well beyond their service lives to assume that you can keep up the same level of capability to deter our adversaries," said Slattery.

Hendrix said another option to increase the size of the Navy fleet is to look at some vessels in the so-called Ready Reserve Force ships, which are maintained for national defense and emergencies.

Either way, he believes there's an urgent need to reach that 355-ship target sooner rather than later. The retired Navy captain insisted the Navy should strive to reach the 355-ship fleet "within a decade in order to deter both the Chinese and Russians who are looking to challenge us at sea."