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McCain slams cost overruns for Ford-class carriers as 'outrageous'

October 20, 2015 (Photo Credit: MC2 Cory Rose/Navy)

It was battle stations for the Navy's newest supercarriers in October. Lawmakers broadsided the Ford-class carriers for growing costs and delivery delays, which largely stem from challenges with the class' leap-ahead technologies. 

The latest confrontation began Oct. 1, when the chairman of the Senate Armed Service Committee, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., called the Ford-class carrier program “one of the most spectacular acquisition debacles in recent memory.” The committee demanded to know what went wrong and who was accountable, with the first-in-class Gerald R. Ford now estimated to cost $12.9 billion — $2.4 billion over its initial price tag. 

“I am accountable,” replied Sean Stackley, the assistant Navy secretary for research, development and acquisition. “Costs were estimated, and design and production proceeded with inadequate information regarding the complexity of the new systems.”

McCain blasted the program a second time Wednesday, highlighting it in his latest edition of “America’s Most Wasted,” a series with the goal of “highlighting, naming and shaming outrageous pork projects funded with your taxpayer dollars.”

The Ford-class program is estimated to be more than $6 billion over budget, McCain said. In addition to the 23 percent rise in the cost of the Ford, the future carrier's delivery is at least eight months delayed. Delivery was scheduled for March 31, but officials in late September pushed that back six to eight weeks to allow more time for shipboard tests. Extra manpower money could have made up the difference, but was not an option under the ship’s tight cost cap, said Capt. John Meier, Ford’s commanding officer.

“This presents some challenges — no significant roadblocks, it's just the timeliness issue,” Meier told Navy Times the day after the decision to delay. “The pure and simple volume of the technological challenges and change from the Nimitz class to the Ford has created this bow wave of delay.”

The powerful senator said “[n]ot a single senior official has been held accountable for the failures of this program to date. This is due in no small part to a diffusion of authority across multiple offices and program acquisition managers — blurred lines of accountability that allow the leaders of our defense acquisition system to evade responsibility for results.”

And that is the reason for growing frustration on Capitol Hill, according to McCain’s report. The decision to develop and integrate “a host of advanced — and entirely unproven — technologies all at once, has proven to be the failure of this program.” Only 27 percent of the ship was designed and just five of its 13 new systems were mature when the building program launched. Laden with cost and schedule estimates that had little margin for error, that plan deteriorated as technologies failed to develop.

The senator cited the Advanced Arresting Gear as “one of the most egregious examples of acquisition gone awry.” The new arresting system's price tag is now $1 billion, which is 600 percent over budget. It has taken twice as long to develop as planned. The higher per unit cost and late delivery means Nimitz-class carriers will not be upgraded with AAG, as was planned.

When asked for response, PEO Carriers said it had nothing new to add to Stackley’s Oct. 1 testimony. In his remarks, the assistant secretary concurred that the incorporation of 23 developmental systems at various levels of technical maturity “significantly compounded the inherent challenges associated with accomplishing the first new aircraft carrier design in 40 years.” But he added that the new carrier class will be able to meet unprecedented operational challenges at a savings of $4 billion per ship ($80 million per year over a 50-year lifespan.)

McCain remains skeptical.

“Since the Second World War, the aircraft carrier has been the centerpiece of our Navy’s fleet,” McCain said in his report. “But the decisions made on the CVN 78 program now threaten to end that legacy.”

Sean Froelich, Medill News Service, contributed to this report.

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