US Navy accepts and operates defective ships

The Government Accountability Office reviewed six ships valued at $6.3 billion that had completed the post delivery period, and found they were provided to the fleet with varying degrees of incomplete work and quality problems. GAO used three quality assurance metrics, identified by Navy program offices, to evaluate the completeness of the six ships—LPD 25, LHA 6, DDG 112, Littoral Combat Ships (LCS) 3 and 4, and SSN 782—at delivery and also at the time each ship was provided to the fleet.

Although the Navy resolved many of the defects by the end of the post-delivery period, as the table below shows, quality problems persisted and work was incomplete when the selected ships were turned over to the operational fleet.

The U.S. Navy spends at least $18 billion per year on its new construction shipbuilding programs, with a portion of this money spent after delivery on work to prepare the ships for the fleet. Over the past several years, GAO have reported on significant cost growth and quality problems facing several Navy shipbuilding programs. In May 2009, GAO compared Navy shipbuilding with commercial shipbuilding and generally found that the Navy accepts significantly more risk when it builds ships compared to commercial shipbuilders and buyers. In November 2013, the GAO found significant quality problems with Navy ships at delivery—noting that the Navy regularly accepts ships with numerous deficiencies. In September 2014, we found that Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) 1 and 2, while legally accepted by the government, had quality problems that persisted after delivery. And in November 2014, we found that shifting construction work on the CVN 78 aircraft carrier to the post-delivery period could obscure the total cost of the ship and result in the need for additional funding to complete the ship during post-delivery. Most recently, in March 2016, the GAO found that the Navy pays for the vast majority of shipbuilder-responsible deficiencies discovered after the Navy takes delivery of its ships.

The San Diego Union Tribune said the Navy’s next-generation aircraft carrier, USS Gerald R. Ford, is a monument to the Navy’s and defense industry’s ability to justify spending billions on unproven technologies that often deliver worse performance at a higher cost.

The Ford program also provides yet another example of the dangers of the Navy and industry end-running the rigorous combat testing that is essential to ensuring we go to war with equipment that works.

The Navy had expected to have the ship delivered in 2014 at a cost of $10.5 billion.

Instead, because the Navy tried to develop more than a dozen new and risky technologies at the same time it was building the ship, the schedule has slipped by more than three years.

Legally the US Navy is accepting the Ford carrier today but it will be at least four years and around a billion dollars more before it is ready.

The USS Ford costs nearly $13 billion so far. In a few years, she will likely carry at least 50 F-35C fighters. Conservatively, each aircraft will have a real cost of $185 million.

That’s a total of $9.25 billion worth of strike aircraft concentrated on one ship. That means this one ship when underway will be worth at least $22.25 billion, to say nothing of the 4,297 sailors on board.

Landing problems

The Advanced Arresting Gear, or AAG, is a new electrical system for landing planes. The latest reliability results show only 25 landings between operational mission failures of the AAG. That’s 660 times fewer than the Navy’s requirement of 16,500.

This makes it utterly impossible for the Ford to meet its surge sortie rate requirements. And, in an astonishing design oversight exactly like that of the EMALS, General Atomics engineers made it impossible to repair AAG failures without shutting down flight operations.

Even after spending an estimated $1.3 billion, the ability to correct the AAG’s dangerous unreliability remains so uncertain that the Navy cannot yet commit to a schedule for at-sea testing of it.

Launching problems

The Navy has found there is no way to electrically isolate each EMALS catapult (electromagnetic launching) from the others during flight operations. This means that repairing the failed catapult must wait until all flight operations have been completed, or, in the event that multiple launchers fail, all flights may have to be suspended to allow repairs.

This problem is particularly acute because the EMALS has a poor reliability track record. The system thus far fails about once every 400 launches. That’s 10 times worse than the 4,166 launches between failures the system is supposed to achieve by contract.

At least four days of rapid-fire combat flights are to be expected at the beginning of any major conflict. At the current failure rate, there is only a 7 percent chance that the USS Ford could complete a four-day flight surge without a launch failure.