D. Dowd Muska


Whip Aircraft-Carrier Inflation Now

September 26, 2013

The Pentagon has never been a savvy shopper. Its new family of aircraft carriers demonstrates that nothing’s changed -- military procurement continues to be a disaster for taxpayers.

Named, rather bizarrely, after a dim-bulb politician noteworthy for being the only man to occupy the White House without being elected president or vice president, Ford-class carriers were pitched to Congress as impressive replacements. They’d launch more sorties, generate a vastly greater amount of electrical power, and require significantly less personnel than their Nimitz-class forebears.

It sounded like a no-brainer -- all gee-whiz acquisition proposals do -- and fedpols eagerly appropriated funding. But once again, reality has torpedoed the rosy predictions of the military-industrial complex’s spinmeisters. Earlier this month, the Government Accountability Office issued a performance audit of the program. Investigators’ conclusion was devastating: “The Navy awarded a multibillion dollar contract for detail design and construction of [the U.S.S. Gerald R. Ford] in 2008, even in light of substantial technology development risks and an overly optimistic budget. Now, nearly 5 years later, the cost of the lead ship has increased by more than $2.3 billion and many risks still remain which are likely to lead to further cost increases before the ship is completed. Although the ship is now more than half constructed … it is still grappling with land-based testing delays and system reliability deficiencies for critical government-provided technologies, a high-risk operational testing strategy, potentially unachievable performance requirements, and cost estimating uncertainties.”

The GAO found that the Ford’s pitiable condition is the consequence of the Navy’s inability to supply critical systems to Virginia-based contractor Newport News Shipbuilding, an inadequate design model, and construction problems driven by material shortfalls and engineering difficulties. In sum, the ship’s troubles are the result of a recurring theme in government procurement: attempting to do too much, too soon.

In the 1980s, NASA established the concept of technology readiness levels (TRLs), which depict “the evolution of an idea from a thought, perhaps written on a cocktail napkin or the back of an envelope, to the full deployment of a product in the marketplace.” DOD and other entities have adopted TRLs. GAO believes that on the Pentagon’s scale of 1 to 9, “TRL 7 constitutes low risk for starting a product development and, for shipbuilding programs, should be achieved for individual technologies prior to detail design contract award.”

Of 13 “critical technologies” necessary for the Ford class to live up to its promise, auditors found that just eight were mature when Newport News Shipbuilding won its contract. The volume search radar, to be used for surveillance and air-traffic control, was at TRL 5. Deficiencies have slowed its development, and “key functions ... remain undemonstrated.” The flattop’s advanced arresting gear (TRL 5) has experienced “test failures” leading to “system redesigns.” The Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System (TRL 6), described by WIRED in 2003 as “similar to a high tech roller coaster but faster than even the scariest thrill rides,” has “technical issues.” Yet “significant numbers of … components … have already been produced, delivered to the shipbuilder, and installed … even though the functional requirements, performance, and suitability of the system remain unproven.”

Behind schedule, billions of dollars over budget, with oodles of time left in the construction and testing phases to discover additional glitches. And at least two more -- the John F. Kennedy and Enterprise -- to be built.

But hey, there are lots of voters in Virginia, and the Old Dominion is a swing state.

What elevates the Ford class’s dismal tale from frustrating to maddening is the powerful argument that America should stop building aircraft carriers -- or if not abandon them, at least shift toward cheaper, safer, nimbler alternatives. In a March paper for the Center for a New American Security, Henry J. Hendrix wrote that given “submarines, surface ships, aircraft, air-launched anti-ship cruise missiles and swarming small craft,” as well as China’s “maneuverable re-entry vehicle … placed on a CSS-5 missile,” the greatest challenge facing American carriers is “survivability.” The active-duty naval officer made a persuasive case for the termination of billion-dollar behemoths, and a transition to guided-missile submarines and unmanned combat aerial vehicles that operate from “smaller, less expensive, light amphibious carriers.”

Rightsizing is good. Downsizing is better. For seven decades, America’s aircraft carriers have served the gauzy goals of “projecting power” and “enhancing diplomacy.” Homeland defense hasn’t risen to the level of an afterthought.

The treasury is bare; the threats are minimal. It’s time to rethink, and perhaps eliminate, the aircraft carrier.

D. Dowd Muska (www.dowdmuska.com) writes about government, economics, and technology. Follow him on Twitter @dowdmuska.

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