The US Navy Is Terrified of Subjecting Its New $13bn Carrier to a Shock Trial It Knows It Won’t Pass
The ship's delicate sub-systems can't absorb a mandatory shock trial without major damage
In a normally quiet House Armed Services Subcommittee on Readiness hearing yesterday, a prepared Congressional Representative Elaine Luria held two Navy shipbuilding and vessel sustainment leaders to account, demanding–and often not getting–answers about the Navy’s Optimized Fleet Response Plan surface ship deployment scheme, the Navy’s carrier maintenance infrastructure, and the Navy’s brand-new $13 billion super-carrier, the troubled USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN 78).
It was a masterful performance by the first-term Congressional Representative from Virginia’s Second District, and it earned accolades from her peers on the Committee.
The Representative was relentless. After calling the USS Ford little more than a multi-billion dollar “berthing barge” and pointedly reminding the Naval Sea Systems Command’s Vice Admiral Thomas Moore that he was, before being promoted to his current command, in charge of the USS Ford debacle between 2011 and 2016, Representative Luria pushed the Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Research, Development and Acquisition, James Geurts, to cough up data for future Congressional accountability.
She noted, “I have asked several times from the Navy to have a specific schedule that takes into account the shock trials, the eventual deployment, and all the other pieces that need to go into place” for the troubled USS Ford to become an effective part of the U.S. Fleet.
When Luria’s questioning began, Geurts was at his amiable best, saying that he had a schedule for the USS Ford, “I’ve got it here,” he said, patting a purple folder, “I’m happy to share it with you.” Then, as Representative Luria continued her cross-examination, he reversed course, saying, “we are re-looking at that full schedule in lieu of shock trials and working with the CNO to make sure we’ve got alignment between the CNO, the fleet, and myself in delivering all the elements of the ship for deployment. We should have that available to you when it’s available.”
Geurts didn’t offer much. But “in lieu” is a very interesting word to employ in Congressional testimony about the USS Ford shock trial. It means “to replace or substitute.” So why did Geurts use that particular term? Is the Navy substituting shock trials in an effort to get the USS Ford out to the fleet in a hurry?
The only certain tasks that the Navy mentioned about the USS Ford schedule were that flight ops were set to start in early 2020, and that the Navy was trying to work in repairs for the ships nine non-functional lower deck ammunition elevators–which get ammunition to and from weapons magazines–sometime during the next 18 months of at-sea testing, where they want to put in thousands of aircraft launches and recoveries, shaking the ship out.
Unfortunately, it did not sound as if the Navy was setting aside time to fit in a Full Ship Shock Trial (FSST), a vigorous test where explosives are detonated near a new Navy vessel to simulate near-misses in a battlefield environment.
The USS Ford Needs To Be Shocked:
If the USS Ford is not shocked–and the validity of the design is not tested–the shock trials will supposedly be shunted to to the future USS John F. Kennedy (CVN 79), the next Ford Class carrier, when most of the remaining Ford class aircraft carriers (CVNs 80, 81 and 82) will be too far along in their production cycle to incorporate many fixes.
The Navy does not appear to be confident that the USS Ford will absorb a shock trial without major damage. The organization has not hidden it’s desire to push shunt shock trials upon a later Ford variant, shocking the next Ford class carrier sometime in the 2024 to 2026 time-frame.
The back-and-forth between shockers and non-shock advocates has been somewhat epic. Congress mandated shock trials of the USS Ford in 2016. Congress then relented in 2017, offering the Navy an “optional” escape clause. In early 2018, the Navy activated the escape clause, and tried to get Secretary of Defense (SECDEF) Jim Mattis to put off the Ford’s Full Ship Shock Trial.
But by March 2018, Secretary of Defense Mattis crushed the Navy’s gambit, and the Department of Defense ordered the USS Ford to undergo a Full Ship Shock Trial. But the Navy may have identified Mattis’s resignation in January 2019 as an opportunity, exploiting subsequent confusion after SECDEF Nominee Patrick Shanahan’s abrupt departure in June 2019 to try to wiggle out of the Ford shock trial again. Mark Esper, the new SECDEF, as well as continued disorder within the Department of Defense, may have tempted the U.S. Navy to attempt another dodge of their statutory responsibilities in fielding an effective and resilient weapons system.
Shock trials are important. The USS Ford may be little more than a glorified berthing barge right now, but it is home for thousands of sailors who deserve a full round of platform testing. Their safety in battle depends upon rigorous pre-deployment testing. It should be done.
If the Navy intends to put off the shock trial, the Navy must come out and say it, in public. And then, Department of Defense leaders must demand that the Navy show it’s work, demonstrating that sufficient modeling has been done at a systems level to provide a sufficient margin of safety for the crew and the systems aboard this new-and very troubled-aircraft carrier. Cutting a deal behind the scenes makes the Navy appear weak and raises real questions about the confidence the Navy has in the entire Ford class.
It does not look promising. Too many new systems aboard the USS Ford have been built to over-exacting tolerances, and they may not respond well to battle damage. It is something sailors and maintainers should know about–and the only way to do that is to put a ship through a shock trial to see what breaks.
Also, the Department of Defense needs to recognize that between 2024 and 2026, America will be in a full-fledged carrier crisis–and that a shock trial may not happen at all. In the 2024-26 time period, the Navy’s carrier fleet will be diminished. The USS Nimitz (CVN 68) will be decommissioned, the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN 69) will be approaching retirement, the USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76) will be in a years-long refueling refit, the USS Ford will still be a partially-complete test-bed, leaving the newly-delivered USS John F. Kennedy (CVN 79) to be sidelined for testing. We can also expect that the remaining Navy carriers, if they are still stuck in the Optimized Fleet Response Plan deployment cycle, will be breaking down under the weight of years of increased demand. In short, if America thinks it has carrier readiness problems today, just wait. It will not get any better six years from now.
Making things worse, by the 2024-2026 time period, China will likely have a number of aircraft carriers roaming the seas, and the short-handed U.S. Navy simply won’t have a strategy ready to manage independently-minded Chinese battle groups. The American public will panic, and the last thing they will want the U.S. Navy to do will be to go and try to break a precious new aircraft carrier.
So let’s get to it. It is time for the Navy to publicly commit to shocking the USS Ford in the next year or so. The USS Ford can be more than just a nuclear-powered berthing barge and a procurement cautionary tale. The Nation has time to go and try and break the Ford class aircraft carriers and build the next ones better. Either that, or it is time for the Navy to go build something else.
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