The USS Ford's Business Case Sinks As The Troubled Carrier Finishes Sea Trials
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Last week, the U.S. Navy celebrated the USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN 78), sending the troubled aircraft carrier to sea for the first time in 15 months. But the Navy also released a set of troubling statistics that show the Navy’s own business case for the Ford class aircraft carrier is crumbling, with the Ford offering far less of an efficiency boost over the Navy’s legacy Nimitz class carriers than expected.
The decline in performance was stark. Days before the USS Ford went to sea, Secretary of the Navy, Richard V. Spencer, restated his business case for abandoning older but proven Nimitz-class carriers on October 23, boasting, “I get 30 percent more sortie generation, 25 percent fewer people on board, and a maintenance cycle that’ll be improved compared to the Nimitz, it is an efficiency game-changer. So let me abandon an older vessel and move to the newer fleet.”
Spencer sounded confident. But in the space of just eight days, after USS Ford returned from sea trials, marking the triumphant end of a grueling 15-month post-shakedown availability/Selective Restricted Availability, the Navy crushed Secretary Spencer’s business case, reporting a five percent increase in crew and operation and maintenance numbers that were higher than expected.
A Navy press release noted that the work done by the USS Ford would now be “executed with a 20 percent reduction in crew, at a significant cost savings, when compared to Nimitz-class ships. The Gerald R. Ford-class carrier offers a 17 percent reduction — approximately $4 billion per ship — in life cycle operations and support costs compared to the earlier Nimitz class.”
The three primary performance estimates used to sell the Ford–high sortie generation rates, big crew reductions and lower operating costs–will continue to decay. And as the Ford’s original rose-tinted performance estimates collapse under real-world testing, the $13 billion USS Ford will start to look more and more like a $5 billion Nimitz.
Spencer’s Failing Business Case
Secretary Spencer regularly uses sortie generation rate, crew reductions and lower operating costs to sell The Ford Class. He extolls the Ford’s “business case” before Congress, marrying unproven statistics with a home-spun appeal to what he claims are standard U.S. private-sector business practices.
But Spencer’s estimates of American business practices are just as pliable as the Ford’s performance estimates. In an April 2019 hearing before the House Armed Services Committee, Spencer proselytized, “When, in fact, a new platform is presented to anyone who is modernizing in the 20 percent improvement range, people abandon assets to make the case to move towards more effective, more efficient, and, in our case, more lethal platforms.”
But in the space of six months, American businesses—at least according to Spencer—had changed the goal posts by five percent. At his October appearance at the Brookings Institution, Spencer chortled, “Abandoning an asset is a tough thing to do, but if you look at fleets, whether aviation, trucking, taxi, whatever the case may be, industry moves on about a 15 percent efficiency. So, if you can develop an airplane that’s more than 15 percent more fuel efficient, or carry more people, the industry will move to that platform.”
If the Navy Secretary’s defense of the USS Ford’s business case continues down this myopic course, taxpayers will soon realize that they have paid three times as much for a new aircraft carrier that may only offer a few percentage points of efficiency over the legacy Nimitz class in sortie generation, crew size and annual operational costs.
And unless the Secretary of the Navy intends to look even sillier than he does today, the Ford selling points need to change.
This Is Just Going To Get Worse:
The Navy Secretary’s slavish devotion to the Ford’s failing business case is perplexing. Informed observers have warned for years that the three foundational metrics used to “sell” the Ford Class—crew size, life cycle costs and sortie generation rate—were at risk.
Topping things off, the Navy has an ugly habit of overselling crew-reduction, with rosy initial predictions rarely holding up under real-world conditions. The Ford is no different. The “minimally-manned” Ford already has more sailors aboard than were originally expected. The original berthing capacity for the Ford was for 4,660 sailors, but 2017-18 estimates ranged from 4,656 to 4,758. That estimate seems to have grown even more in the interim. While concrete numbers are hard to come by, what we do know is that the crew growth forced the ship to add berthing spaces, and, given that the final staffing requirements for the new catapults, arresting gear, radar, elevators and aircraft are still poorly understood, even more sailors will likely be needed. Over time, the Ford’s crew seems set to grow to within ten to fifteen percent of the legacy Nimitz Class.
For a naval vessel, recovery from an over-optimistic reduction in crew size is a tough process. Expanding a “minimally manned” crew has cascading effects. Hotel service margins shrink, endurance predictions plummet and innumerable secondary impacts cascade throughout the ship and fleet. It may be easy to add in another bunk into berthing spaces, but adding a few hundred additional crew demands more freezer space, more refrigerator capacity, replenishment support and so forth. It is not an easy fix.
Navy ship life cycle and operations support costs are another area where the Navy’s initial rosy estimates rarely pan out. According to Eric Wertheim’s exhaustive ship compendium, the 2013 issue of the Naval Institute Guide to Combat Fleets of the World, Ford advocates had hoped for a 30 percent reduction in maintenance costs and a far longer 43 month maintenance cycle (A Nimitz maintenance cycle is 32 months). With current estimates now suggesting only a 17 percent reduction in operations and maintenance costs, the trend lines are not healthy. The Ford’s operational costs seem likely to continue spiraling, failing to recoup the hefty procurement cost differential between the legacy Nimitz class and the new Fords.
Operations and maintenance costs also fail to capture the extra infrastructure modifications of the Ford. One example of unaccounted cost are the expensive shipyard modifications required before the new Fords can be serviced in America’s naval shipyards—somehow the Ford is just big enough to force the wholesale rebuilding of the Navy’s handful of carrier-ready dry docks.
The final statistic is sortie rate. The only reason why the USS Ford’s sortie generation rates have remained steady at thirty percent over the past few months is because the sortie generation rates have not been formally tested. But performance to date is distressing. In fact, the Ford has only generated 747 sorties in the two years it has been commissioned, so, at this point, extolling the Ford as a better sortie generator than a Nimitz class aircraft carrier is, at this point, factually wrong.
The Nimitz Class has demonstrated a sustained sortie generation rate of 120 launches and recoveries over a twelve-hour flight day, sustaining that level of operation for thirty days. The Navy hopes the Ford will demonstrate 160 sorties a day over the same time period. The goal for the Ford’s surge sortie rate, which testers hope will be achieved and sustained over four days of continuous, 24-hour a day flying, is 270 sorties, versus a proven 240 sorties for the Nimitz Class.
Reaching those operational goals will be hard. It is unlikely the Ford’s targeted performance level will be met without additional personnel and contractor support. The electromagnetic launch and recovery systems aboard the Ford are still experimental and may struggle under a high operational tempo in sub-optimal conditions. The Ford’s sortie generation rate target may be achievable once, under ideal test conditions, but, unless something dramatically changes in the operational makeup of the carrier wing’s composition, the USS Ford will be hard-pressed to meet Nimitz class performance levels when deployed.
Secretary Spencer knows his metrics are at risk. The Office of the Director, Operational Test and Evaluation, the Pentagon’s weapons testing agency, cautioned in its fiscal year 2018 testing report, “Unrealistic assumptions underpin the SGR (sortie generation rate) threshold requirement. These assumptions ignore the effects of weather, aircraft emergencies, ship maneuvers, and current air wing composition on flight operations.” In plain English, the Ford will struggle to meet its sortie generation performance targets.
Why Keep Doing It?
If the three major metrics that underpin the business case for the Ford are failing, why do top Navy leaders continue to use them? There are certainly many other potential benefits to the Ford; ideally, the ship positions the United States to operate unmanned aircraft at sea, allowing a far wider range of aircraft to operate from the vessel than a legacy carrier equipped with a steam catapult might. The Navy is solving immense technical challenges inherent in electromagnetic systems. Surely some of the twenty-three new technologies added to the ship are working well and can be discussed in a public forum.
Put bluntly, the Ford is an audacious technological gamble whose challenges should have been far more openly embraced to inspire both the American people as well as future naval recruits.
Continuing on the current course is a recipe for disaster. Insisting upon comparing the Ford class aircraft carrier to the legacy Nimitz class makes no sense. The Ford’s statistical top-line is not going to improve for some time. No semantic gamesmanship can overcome the obvious fact that the Ford’s original business case is failing and must be reoriented.
And finally, it does not build confidence when, in the space of eight days, the Navy’s senior leadership are unable to keep their stories straight on the Ford’s three fundamental performance goals—goals that have been presented in testimony before Congress. It only makes observers wonder if this erratic messaging reflects poor knowledge of the facts or just poor judgment.