The plight of the very expensive and very late Gerald R. Ford aircraft carrier ignited a war of words between U.S. lawmakers and Navy leaders this week.
Billed as the first of a new generation of floating American airfields, the Ford was slated for delivery in 2015, but was not turned over to the Navy and commissioned until 2017.
Although it completed a five-day pierside fast cruise training evolution on Wednesday and is scheduled to exit the Huntington Ingalls Industries-Newport News Shipbuilding yard later this month, the flattop has been plagued by glitches affecting everything from its ammunition elevators to a new electromagnetic system for launching and recovering jets.
Initially capped for costs at $10,5 billion, the price tag has since ballooned beyond $13 billion, according to the Congressional Research Service.
And because of “continuing technical deficiencies, the Navy may still require more funding to complete this ship,” CRS warned in a report this week.
That history formed the backdrop of the latest Ford fracas, which erupted Tuesday at a House Armed Services Readiness Subcommittee hearing, when U.S. Rep. Elaine Luria — a Virginia Democrat and retired surface warfare officer — grilled the brass on Ford’s long journey to operational status.
Vice Adm. Thomas Moore, head of Naval Sea Systems Command, conceded during the hearing that Ford was supposed to deploy last year, but the sea service is now working to ensure it can go to sea by 2024.
Luria lamented the Navy’s lack of answers and questioned the money spent on a carrier that she called a $13 billion “nuclear powered floating barge that’s not deployable.”
The Ford isn’t alone. Luria pointed out that five other Norfolk-based carriers can’t be deployed.
And her remarks aren’t partisan. Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., said this summer that the Navy’s arrogance about flattop Ford “ought to be criminal.”
A January assessment from the Navy's operational testing and evaluation arm warns that the new electromagnetic jet launch system aboard the Gerald R. Ford is having issues.
At an event Wednesday, Navy Secretary Richard Spencer bristled at Luria’s criticism of the “massively complex systems” on Ford.
Speaking at a Brookings Institution think tank event, he said such complaints left him feeling that he “could not ask for a better disinformation program for our competitors.”
“The way we went to the moon was because the country was behind this, to get us to the moon with new technology,” Spencer said. “We’re going to work this out.”
Ford’s innovative high-tech catapults have not only bedeviled engineers trying to perfect them but have also irked President Donald Trump, who said in 2017 that the carrier’s electromagnetic system should return to “goddamned steam.”
Spencer blamed Congress Wednesday for ever putting a price cap on the carrier, which he likened to making a deal to get your house painted for $100 and then offering the painter only $75.
“I would love to know that Congress understands what a price cap does,” Spencer added.
Spencer also laid into Luria for not offering to help.
“I consider that disparaging,” he said.
Luria’s Capitol Hill team responded that, during Tuesday’s hearing, she offered to do just that.
“We want to be here for readiness to provide you the tools to get the carriers out to deploy on time,” she told Moore and Assistant Navy Secretary for Research, Development and Acquisition James Geurts. “What else do you need to do that?”
On Wednesday, Spencer also denounced how lawmakers — who he refers to as his “board of directors” — only blame the Navy for the Ford’s failures.
“I love the fact that…Congress turns around and says, ‘Navy, this is your fault,’” he said. “I have an extra seat up there when I testify, and I have not seen Huntington Ingalls-Newport News called up on the Hill to testify on the outrage my board of directors sees on the Ford.”
In a statement released Wednesday night, Luria said she was disappointed that Spencer “finds Congressional oversight disparaging.”
“Here are the facts: The USS FORD will be six years delayed in its initial deployment, which causes incredible strain on the carrier fleet,” she said.
President Trump says the Navy should abandon longstanding plans for electro-magnetic catapults for carrier aviation and return to the traditional steam-powered launch and recovery system.
Spencer reportedly told President Trump at December’s Army-Navy football game to fire him if Ford’s elevators weren’t working by this past August.
“We’ll see if I’m here after August,” Bloomberg quoted Spencer as saying in January.
“It is now fall and no elevators accessing the ammunition storage areas are functioning, which results in a carrier with no combat capability,” Luria said in Wednesday’s statement.
Spencer said Wednesday that “we signed elevator number 4 over” earlier that day.
“I have yet to see a detailed plan to fix the multitude of problems with these new technologies,” Luria added. “The Navy accepted the design of these systems and accepted the ship in an incomplete state from (Huntington Ingalls Industries), so it is absolutely my role to question Navy leadership on their current failure to deliver an operational ship to the fleet.”