The USS Gerald R. Ford, the Navy’s newest and most expensive aircraft carrier has been touted as the most powerful warship ever to take to the seas, but issues have continued to plague the advanced vessel, now prompting the Navy to request a six year delay in shock testing intended to determine how well the vessel would fair in a real combat environment.
The new carrier and namesake for its class is the first of its kind to field new systems that were intended to reduce personnel requirements and expedite combat operations. With automation allowing for a reduced personnel requirement and new technology like an electromagnetic aircraft launch system, the Gerald R. Ford was intended to be not only a flagship for the U.S. Navy, but one for the changing face of warfare … if they could just get it to work.
With plans to expedite the troubled carrier’s entrance into combat operations, in keeping with President Trump’s calls for a 12-carrier fleet, the U.S. Navy submitted a request to the Pentagon’s head, James Mattis, earlier this week, asking that shock testing be postponed until the second carrier of the class, likely to be the USS John F. Kennedy, enters into service in 2024. That would mean waiting six years before finding out how the new super-carrier would handle a real combat situation.
Shock testing, which is technically referred to as Full Ship Shock Trial (FSST) within the Navy, isn’t intended to cause the ship to sustain any actual damage, and is conducted with the full crew complement on board. Charges are detonated in the water, rattling everything on board the ship and providing an opportunity to identify any issues or weak points that could present issues in real combat operations. If any damage or injuries actually occur during shock testing, it’s a sign of significant issues with the vessel, but the real value in shock testing tends to be identifying and addressing smaller issues that could lead to big ones if the ship were ever really hit with enemy ordnance.
“There are four major new systems on this aircraft carrier for launching and landing aircraft, detecting aircraft and missiles and moving ordnance in elevators from deep inside the vessel,” Robert Behler, the Pentagon’s new chief of testing said in an interview with Bloomberg. “I think we have to know if those systems continue to work in a combat environment,” he said, but the decision of whether the shock tests occur next year “is not mine to make.”
The problem may be that these new systems have already demonstrated a number of issues even when not operating in combat scenarios. The electromagnetic catapult, intended to dramatically reduce the amount of time between aircraft launches, has proven problematic. So much so, in fact, that efforts to resolve problems with the system have ballooned the price of that piece of equipment alone to nearly one billion dollars. Like other issues the Ford has faced, shock testing a component that is already simply doesn’t make much sense — but then, neither does fielding an untested and troubled vessel for the sake of scheduling.
“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,” Behler said. “Additionally, the survivability of these newly designed systems remains unknown until the CVN-78 undergoes full ship shock trials.”
The Pentagon has yet to respond to the Navy’s request for this delay, saying only that, “Secretary Mattis will respond directly to the Navy when he makes a decision.”
Images courtesy of the U.S. Navy