Nation’s new aircraft carrier enters next phase at shipyard

NORFOLK, Va. (AP) – The nation’s newest aircraft carrier returned to a Virginia shipyard Sunday for a year of planned upgrades and fixes, marking the next phase in the development of the Navy’s most advanced and scrutinized warship.

The USS Gerald R. Ford’s stay at Newport News Shipbuilding will address some well-publicized problems, many of which have involved its cutting-edge systems.

For instance, work at the shipyard will address any kinks involving the gear that’s used to catch fighter jets as they land, said Naval Sea Systems Command spokesman William Couch, who announced the Ford’s arrival in Newport News. The shipyard will also remedy a ship propulsion problem that was created by a manufacturing defect.

The Ford’s stay at the shipyard is a normal step toward combat readiness, which is expected in 2022. But the $13 billion carrier’s development has been far from routine.

The Navy’s most expensive warship has drawn criticism from government watchdogs and members of Congress for delays, glitches and cost overruns. Navy officials and some experts have said problems are expected to arise- and be worked out – on the first ship in a new class. Two more Ford-class carriers are under construction, and more could be built.

The new carrier is designed to carry a wider variety of planes, potentially including unmanned aircraft, and operate with several hundred fewer sailors. A new electromagnetic system for launching planes is supposed to increase flying missions by a third.

But in January, the Navy’s Operational Test and Evaluation Force highlighted “poor or unknown reliability” issues involving the Ford’s new launch and land systems as well as its new radar and weapons elevators. The report said the ship “is unlikely to be able to conduct the type of high-intensity flight operations expected during wartime.”

The electromagnetic launch system also drew criticism from President Donald Trump, who told Time magazine last year that the system “costs hundreds of millions of dollars more money and it’s no good.”

The Navy has declined to comment on the president’s statement. But officials said that the Ford has launched and recovered nearly 750 aircraft so far and will support “full intensity” operations by its first deployment. The ship’s radar and weapons elevators will also be upgraded during its stay at the shipyard.

“No nation on earth can match the capability of USS Gerald R. Ford; a class of ship which will lead our Navy well into the 21st century,” Rear Admiral Roy Kelley, Commander of Naval Air Force Atlantic, said in a statement Sunday.

Bradley Martin, a senior policy researcher at the RAND Corporation and a retired Navy captain, said the Ford has experienced a lot of challenges because it was loaded with so many new, untested systems.

“It may turn out that was the best thing to do, but it certainly induced some growing pains,” said Martin, whose research for the think tank includes aircraft carriers. “Once it arrives, it is probably going to be the most capable warship ever developed.”

After the Ford leaves the shipyard, it will undergo more testing and trials at sea. Those include shock trials, during which underwater explosives are set off near the carrier.