A previously undisclosed issue with the Navy’s newest and most advanced aircraft carrier, the USS Gerald R. Ford, forced it to return to port during shakedown testing in January, the branch admitted this week.

For the second time, an issue with the carrier, which cost just short of $13 billion to build, has raised questions about the platform’s propulsion system — this time, the revelation comes amid calls from Navy officials to expand carrier construction efforts to double the current order of forthcoming Ford class carriers. Building two carriers at once could result in a significant reduction in total cost while helping to expedite an ongoing effort to grow the fleet.

According to a statement made by Naval Sea Systems Command, “an out of specification condition” arose in the Ford’s propulsion system during a shakedown cruise in January that was identified when ship engineers noticed that the main thrust bearing was registering temperatures 92 degrees Fahrenheit higher than the bearing’s “temperature setpoint.”

According to the Navy’s investigation, the issue was not caused by improper or excessive use of the component, but rather is the result of a “manufacturing defect.” Further complicating matters, that same defect is said to affect “the same component” located in other parts of the propulsion system.

Ford class carriers utilize four massive props for propulsion, each requiring a main thrust bearing — and because of the massive size of the vessel and enormous amounts of power required to propel it to it’s claimed top speed of better than 35 knots, these bearings undergo extreme amounts of pressure, but are crucial to the ship’s operation.

While ship builder Huntington Ingalls was contracted for the USS Gerald R. Ford’s construction, Bloomberg news rightly points out that the massive ship’s propulsion systems were actually farmed out to General Electric. According to Bloomberg’s investigation, the bearings at fault in January’s failure were sourced from GE’s Lynn, Massachusetts production facility.

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The Navy has assessed those bearings to have been improperly machined, and therefore the “root cause” of the problem.

According to a spokesman for GE, the company is no longer under contract to produce these components for the Ford, which raises questions about the costs one can expect to repair or replace the bearings on the existing carrier, as well as where they will be sourced from in upcoming carriers. This question is of particular pertinence now, as lawmakers mull over the idea of doubling carrier construction in the next fiscal year — which would mean allocating a whopping $58 billion more into the immediate effort, in favor of saving money in the long run.

According to William Couch, a spokesman for the Sea Systems Command, the Navy and Huntington Ingalls “are evaluating the case for a claim against the manufacturer.”

These issues with the Ford’s propulsion systems are not the first troubling technical issues with what has become the most expensive warship ever produced. Issues with the ship’s new electromagnetic catapult slated to replace the traditional steam-powered apparatus have raised questions about the vessel’s ability to launch sorties of aircraft, and the Ford’s 11 advanced weapons elevators, intended to quickly transport munitions to the flight deck, are still not operational.

Recently, Navy officials asked for a six-year delay on shock testing of the USS Gerald R. Ford, which would include detonating ordnance in the water near to the Ford to see how well it would fair in real combat scenarios. Robert Behler, the Pentagon’s new chief of testing, said,

The CVN-78 is making progress, however, reliability of the newly designed catapults, arresting gear, weapons elevators and radar, which are all critical for flight operations, have the potential to limit the CVN-78 ability to generate sorties. Additionally, the survivability of these newly designed systems remains unknown until the CVN-78 undergoes full ship shock trials.”

Thus far, no announcement has been made on that decision.

Image courtesy of the U.S. Navy