The U.S. Navy's long-troubled first-in-class aircraft carrier USS Gerald R. Ford could leave an already extended stay in dry dock later this year with just two of its 11 Advanced Weapons Elevators, or AWEs, operational. The nine remaining elevators, which help move ordnance and other aircraft stores to and from the main flight deck to the ship's magazines and are critical to carrier's ability to fight, might not all be useable until 2020, at the earliest. In January 2019, Secretary of the Navy Richard Spencer had publicly said that President Donald Trump should fire him if this were to happen.
These details emerged as Senator Jim Inhofe, a Republican from Oklahoma and the current Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, grilled U.S. Navy Vice Admiral Michael Gilday over the Ford's failings at a confirmation hearing on July 31, 2019. Presently the Director of the Joint Staff, Gilday is in line to become the next Chief of Naval Operations, the Navy's top uniformed officer.
"Even with this delay, only two of the 11 elevators are going to be ready in October," Inhofe revealed in leading up to a question for Gilday. "Nine elevators will not be ready and likely will not be complete until 2020 or later."
"This is going to be dumped in your lap," he added.
It had already emerged earlier this year that the Navy had only been able to certify two of Ford's AWEs for regular use. However, the Navy had stressed that it was working to rectify the issue and would use the carrier's planned maintenance and rework period as an opportunity to make progress on fixing the problems. As noted, in January, Secretary of the Navy Richard Spencer had gone so far as to say that Trump should fire him if the ship left the shipyard in Newport News, Virginia without the elevators operational.
"I asked him to stick his hand out; he stuck his hand out. I said, let’s do this like corporate America. I shook his hand and said, the elevators will be ready to go when she pulls out or you can fire me,” Spencer said at the time. "We’re going to get it done. I know I’m going to get it done. I haven’t been fired yet by anyone; being fired by the president really isn’t on the top of my list."
In response to Inhofe's questioning, Gilday noted that as many as four elevators could potentially be working by the time Ford left drydock, which is now scheduled to occur in October 2019, but that the majority of them would remain unusable. This is a three month later than expected and the delay was the result of a separate, unexpected propulsion system problem.
“It’s still unacceptable," Gilday agreed. "We need all 11 elevators working in order to give us the kind of redundancy and combat readiness that the American taxpayer has invested in this ship."
This is something of an understatement. The AWEs are absolutely critical to the carrier's flight operations and not being able to use more than half to them can only limit sortie generation as flight deck crews have to make more trips to and from the ship's magazines to bring up the necessary missiles, bombs, and other stores. It could also limit access to certain magazines.
The Navy itself has claimed that the new elevators, which use electromagnetic propulsion to move up and down, will increase sortie rates on Ford class carriers by between 25 and 30 percent over Nimitz class ships, because they can move faster and require less routine maintenance. The AWEs move at speeds up to 150 feet per minute, even with loads up to 24,000 pounds, more than twice the capacity and one and a half times faster than the traditional cable-driven designs on the Nimitzs.
The service has long blamed the persistent problems with the elevators on finicky software-based control systems, but a separate story from Bloomberg on July 31, 2019, highlighted issues with the AWEs that have emerged as a product of a process known as "concurrency," wherein Newport News Shipbuilding began construction of the ship without having a completely finalized design or fully mature components.
Due to the “concurrent nature of elevator development and construction” the AWEs “have been test beds for discovering developmental issues that have delayed the turnover to the crew," U.S. Navy Captain Danny Hernandez, a service spokesperson, told Bloomberg. As many as 70 elevator doors and 17 elevator hatches do not meet the required specifications because of how the ship's physical structure has otherwise evolved over time.
It remains unclear if the Navy will be able to meet the 2020 deadline for having all of the AWEs certified for regular use, either. In May 2019, the service announced it was building a land-based test facility for the elevators to support continued work on them. This structure won't be operational until some time in 2020. Earlier in July, the service also said it had put together a team of experts to help with finally solving the problems with the elevators.
"The secretary’s promise to the president eight months ago indicates either poor knowledge of the facts or poor judgment. This is the latest example of Navy leaders not being straightforward when it comes to their programs," Inhofe told Gilday during the hearing. "That’s quite a charge, isn’t it?”
Of course, the elevators are just one of a number of issues still plaguing the Ford, including unreliable electrically powered and controlled catapults and arresting gear, which cannot be able to safely launch and recover the Navy's new F-35C Joint Strike Fighters and may not be able to do so until 2027. This is to say nothing of other persistent issues with the ship's radar, propulsion system, and more.
"We’ve had 23 new technologies introduced on that ship, as you know," Gilday responded. "Of those, four were immature when we commissioned Ford in 2017."
“It’s the elevators, I think, that is the remaining hurdle to get over to get that ship at sea,” he added. This doesn't change the fact that the Navy still has a significant ways to go before the Ford's other critical systems are meeting the required performance targets.
Ford is scheduled to leave on her first operational deployment in 2021, but the revelation about the AWEs only underscores the ship's inability to provide any kind of real capability now, should the Navy need it in a crisis, two years after formally entering service. That the Navy still cannot provide a firm timeline on when all of the elevators will be working can only raise more questions about how capable the carrier might be when it does put to sea for its first real cruise two years from now, if that even occurs in the end.
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