National Security & Defense

We Must Shock-Test the USS Gerald R. Ford

The aircraft carrier USS Gerald R. Ford during testing in July 2017. (Erik Hildebrandt/US Navy)
We need more super carriers, but we also need to know that they will perform well in combat conditions.

Earlier this month the U.S. Navy submitted a request to Secretary of Defense Mattis to postpone the planned shock testing of the USS Gerald R. Ford, the new Ford-class super carrier, until the second carrier of its class, the USS John F. Kennedy, goes through its post-launch tests some six years from now. A shock test involves setting off a series of underwater explosive charges of sufficient size, detonating them closer and closer to the ship to shake the ship enough to determine weak points or other issues in the ship’s design. The test is done with a full crew onboard and is intended not to damage the ship but to judge its adaptability to combat conditions.

The Navy’s argument is that the Navy’s need to increase the number of deployable super carriers to eleven (we now have ten) in order to take strain off of the overall fleet exceeds its need to analyze the robustness and resilience of the Ford’s design. In other words, getting the Ford on deployment quickly is more important to the Navy than shock-testing it.

A retired naval officer who was involved in the Ford’s design, argued this month that the Ford is the wrong ship to test, because it will deploy with a unique air-search radar that will be replaced with another on subsequent ships. He also noted that shock tests could disturb marine wildlife and that, in any case, for most ship classes, the shock test is not normally performed until the third or fourth ship in the class.

The USS Gerald R. Ford represents a revolutionary change in super-carrier design. After nearly 60 years of evolutionary progress that saw the advent of steam catapults, angled decks, and nuclear power, the USS Ford leapt ahead and incorporated five radically different upgrades over its predecessors. Beyond the aforementioned new air-search radar, the ship also incorporates a new electromagnetic aircraft-launch system, replacing previous steam-fired catapults; advanced arresting gear, which use water-absorbing turbines linked to an electrically controlled motor rather than the previous hydraulically powered system; and a new advanced-weapons elevator system, to move heavy ordnance safely and swiftly from magazines deep in the ship’s internal spaces. Given the number of components that depend on electrical power, the ship’s designers had to create an entirely new electrical power-generation and distribution system, to include the creation and installation of huge new turbine generators. All of these revolutionary new systems came at great expense. The new ship was originally estimated to come in at $10.5 billion but actually will cost more than $12.9 billion.

Nothing says ‘Merica’ in a tense diplomatic situation like five acres of sovereign U.S. territory and 60 combat aircraft coming into view.

Despite the cost, we need aircraft carriers. Nothing says “Merica” in a tense diplomatic situation like five acres of sovereign U.S. territory and 60 combat aircraft coming into view. Nor should it be said that we do not need Ford-class carriers. The class comes with significant advantages in terms of aircraft-launch and aircraft-recovery rates. And with the Navy growing under the leadership of President Trump toward its goal of 355 ships , the fleet will be able to surround and protect the carriers from ballistic and cruise-missile attacks in a manner that was in question just a few years ago. There are still some significant questions about the proper composition of the carrier’s air wing, and the Ford’s high cost compared with that of its Nimitz-class predecessors is troubling, but the nation needs its super carriers, and these are the ones we are building now. But we also need to make sure they work under combat conditions, and that is why we must shock-test the USS Ford.

Navy crews must be confident that the ships they sail are going to work under combat conditions. That’s the purpose of the shock test, to see if a ship can take a hit and still keep fighting. Carriers in particular, which carry 5,000 sailors and account for over half of the nation’s annual shipbuilding budget, must successfully accomplish their missions. As opposed to other smaller classes of ships, which take one to two years to build, super carriers take four to five years to build, which means that if there is a significant flaw in the Ford’s design and if Secretary Mattis approves the delay in shock testing until the USS Kennedy’s evaluation six years hence, the nation will be accepting a sizable risk just as it enters a period of maximum danger in the growing great-power competition with China and Russia.

Secretary Mattis should direct the Navy to conduct the shock test on schedule, identify weaknesses in the class’s design while the Kennedy is still being built in her graving dock and the Enterprise (the third Ford-class aircraft carrier to be built) is still in its planning stage. If the Ford class’s designers have done their job right, changes in design will be minimal. But, if there are major faults that will handicap the nation in a time of war, we need to know them now and get them corrected or risk failure in battle.

Jerry Hendrix — Jerry Hendrix is a retired U.S. Navy captain, an award-winning naval historian, and a senior fellow and director of the Defense Strategies and Assessments Program at the Center for a New American Security.

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