PopMech takes a look at yet another disastrous multi-billion-dollar boondoggle from the once-mighty US military—a bigger one, probably, than even the F35 Turducken.
Can the military save the USS Gerald R. Ford?
Wrong question. The real question is: should it?
The late 20th century was a time of supreme American confidence and rapid innovation. The Cold War was drawing to a close, the digital age was around the corner, and the Pentagon saw an opportunity to capitalize on peacetime and begin preparing for future conflict. With few diplomatic or military distractions, the United States ushered in a revolution in military technology.
Out of that boom period came ambitions for a new class of aircraft carrier headlined by the transformational USS Gerald R. Ford, a ship featuring an expanded flight deck, a boosted power plant, and support for almost two dozen emergent technologies. Expectations were high. The Ford’s nuclear reactor and propulsion system would triple the electrical power of the preceding Nimitz-class aircraft carriers. Its state-of-the-art weapons elevators would move 20,000 pounds of munitions at speeds of 150 feet per minute compared with the Nimitz‘s speed of 100 feet per minute. Its new launch-and-recovery system would be able to handle 270 planes in a single day. From bow to stern, the ship’s innovations—designed to save time, costs, and crew—would revolutionize the way the U.S. military built and used carriers. The Ford would be a symbol of American superiority, one that would project power to American adversaries for five decades of dependable service.
Well, they got the “transformational” bit right, anyway; the Ford definitely IS that. It’s just that it’s part of a decidedly wrong-way transformation: from a capable, powerful military—along with fighters that can’t fight; tanks that can’t tank; rifles more prone to jamming than a pimply, teenaged Stevie Vai wannabe at Sam Ash on a Saturday afternoon; and battalions of mincing, simpering dick-choppers who only signed up so they could get their bulbous naughty parts lopped off by an Army surgeon for free—into a hapless, bumbling, incompetent one.
“There was this thinking of, ‘We are so far ahead of everyone else that we can afford to take a strategic pause and take risks on our acquisition and try new and untested technology,’” says Eric Wertheim, a defense analyst and expert with the U.S. Naval Institute, of the nation’s mindset after the Cold War. “And there was this feeling that the rest of the world is at least 20 years behind us.”
But after two decades of development and delays, the audacity that conceived the Ford seemed to usher its doom. Expected to save the military $4 billion during its life span, the Ford has actually cost billions more than initial estimates. First expected to deploy in 2018, it has been projected to deploy as far out as 2024. When the ship reached the Navy after construction, it was already two years behind schedule, with work outstanding on thousands of items. In 2015, Sen. John McCain, chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee and a former Navy aviator, called packing all that tech onto the Ford “the original sin” that damaged the program.
Even the Navy’s top officer acknowledged the problems that have plagued the carrier. “We had 23 new technologies on [the USS Gerald R. Ford] which, quite frankly, increased the risk of delivery on time and cost right from the get-go,” said Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday at a virtual talk before the Navy League’s 2021 Sea Air Space exposition. “And I think industry’s in full agreement with this: We really shouldn’t introduce more than maybe one or two new technologies on any complex platform like that, in order to keep risk at a manageable level.”
Meanwhile, naval advances by U.S. adversaries have added urgency to the Ford’s troubleshooting. The ship’s critics point to its expanding budget and timetable as evidence that the U.S. military should reconsider developing massive nuclear carriers as a foundational element of its naval program. Military advisor Norman Polmar points out that America’s most recent conflicts in the Middle East didn’t even use the Nimitz class to full capacity. “Look what we did in Iraq,” he says. “We launched [just] 20 or 30 strikes a day from a carrier that has 70 airplanes.” And Rep. Adam Smith, chair of the House Armed Services Committee, has questioned whether the Ford’s price tag justifies its utility. During a 2021 Brookings Institution discussion, Smith asked if there are other ways “to get unmanned systems closer to the fight that don’t cost $12 billion.”
All part and parcel of the truism that generals and admirals are always preparing to fight the last war, in this case WW2. Out of the myriad mistakes, flaws, and failures of the Ford, this one remains the most jaw-dropping to me.
One standout feature of the Ford—albeit a troublesome one—is its state-of-the-art Advanced Arresting Gear (AAG). Prior to Ford, American carriers used a hydraulic arresting system to slow and stop landing aircraft, but the AAG uses an electric engine and a water twister to accommodate a broader range of aircraft—including unmanned aerial vehicles. Engineering and manufacturing of the AAG began in 2005, with 2009 the targeted end date. But a 2016 Pentagon Inspector General report noted that developmental testing for the AAG would continue through 2018; the system still hadn’t proved capable or safe enough to test on the Ford. Between 2009 and 2012, the AAG’s power conditioning system failed across multiple tests, and both its inverter system and cable shock absorber required redesigns. The setbacks ballooned the AAG’s development cost from $143 million to more than $1 billion, according to a report from Sen. McCain’s office.
(Now-retired Navy captain Talbot) Manvel says he resisted AAG on the Ford as early as 1998, wanting to push it onto the subsequent ships in the class after its design had matured. He had his way until Rumsfeld stepped in with his transformational vision. “This was transformation run amok,” Manvel says.
That it surely was, sir. Which, once the temptation of it is yielded to, is what usually tends to happen.
It all makes for a depressing read for anyone who grew up believing that the American war machine was nigh-invincible, without Earthly peer or parallel amongst its adversary nation-states. That’s simply no longer the case, if it ever really was. Which, given certain harsh realities of life on this here planet, it almost certainly wasn’t.