Ford Carrier is a Failure With Huge Radar, Elevator, Launch and Landing Problems

US Secretary Richard V. Spencer blames new multi-year delays for the next-generation Gerald Ford carrier on the budget cap limiting the spending to just over $13 billion. This is $2.5 billion over the original $10.5 billion budget.

On 10 September 2008, the U.S. Navy signed a $5.1 billion contract with Northrop Grumman Shipbuilding in Newport News, Virginia, to design and construct the carrier. As of 2013, construction costs were estimated at $12.8 billion, 22% over the 2008 budget, plus $4.7 billion in research and development costs.

The ship was originally scheduled for launch in July 2013 and delivery in 2015.

The ship was “delivered” in 2017 but it is not in good shape. The deployment date is now 2024 which is 6 years after the original plan.

The current error rates for launching and landing means a major failure every time they try to launch or land all the planes. The failures would take at minimum many hours if not days to fix. Launching means you launch maybe 30-80 planes and then shutdown for repairs. Landing means that you are unable to take back all of the planes you launched. In a combat situation, the planes after a landing system failure would have to go a nearby airbase or get ditched into the ocean.

This means none of the planned benefits of the Ford for higher launch rates or cheaper operation will be realized.

Nextbigfuture predicts that the four Ford-class ships using EMALS and the current design will not land or launch planes at the proper rate before 2035. Eventually, there might be some redesign, gutting, and overhaul. The four will get built and deployed but they will be two to three times the price of the Nimitz for less launch capability.

They will not be able to deploy without a fully reliable landing system and some launch system that is at least half the Nimitz level of capability.

Nextbigfuture predicts the AAG landing gear will fail-operational tests, unless the tests standards are criminally reduced. They will or should replace them with the old MK 7 hydraulic arresting gear. The retrofit will be expensive and take a year or more.

The EMALS replacement would be far harder. They may find a way to separate the four launch units.

The Major Systems of Radar, Elevators, Launch and Landing Do Not Work

The ship has better AN/SPY-3 and AN/SPY-4 active electronically scanned array multi-function radar. It is replacing traditional steam catapults, the Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System (EMALS) will launch all carrier aircraft. This innovation frees up considerable area below-deck and allows for the launching of smaller drones and fighters. The EMALS is supposed to allow 25% more aircraft launches per day than the Nimitz class. The ship should need 25% fewer crew members and save $4 billion in operating costs over a 50-year lifespan.

DOT&E reports the $500 million radar was plagued by extraneous false and close-in dual tracks adversely affecting its performance. The Navy plans to switch back to Nimitz style radar by the third Ford Carrier.

In January 2019, 20 launch and landing failures from Gerald Ford testing were made public.

The major Ford-class’ bugs will make it inferior to a Nimitz until the bugs are fixed.

Out of 747 shipboard launches performed with the EMALS, ten had suffered critical failures. The target reliability average was one critical failure per 4,166 launch cycles. The launch system is over 50 times less reliable than the target failure rate. Every time they try to launch the full complement of airplanes they will have a critical failure.

The landing system also fails every 70-75 times it is used. This is over 200 times less reliable than planned. General Atomics engineers made it impossible to repair the AAG landing failures without shutting down flight operations. The AAG power supply can’t be disconnected from the high-voltage supply while flights continue.

The ship has a distributed power storage system. The entire EMALS generator must be “spun down” over 90 minutes in order for a failure to be repaired. The Ford has four launch catapults so that if one should one fail, the ship could continue operations using the remaining three. However, all four have to be shutdown for repairs.

The new carriers are not even capable of carrying the Navy’s new F-35C stealth fighters.

The Nimitz-class’ cable-based elevators lift 5.25 tons of munitions at 100 feet per minute. The Ford uses powerful magnets to lift 10-12 tons at 150 feet per minute, roughly tripling output. In July 2017, none of the Ford elevators were functional.

In January 2019, Navy Secretary Spencer personally vowed to President Donald Trump that the Ford would have fully functional weapons elevators by the time she departed for sea trials.

In October 2019, only two of the eleven elevators are functional. The Navy acquisition chief announced that work on getting the remainder operational would continue during sea trials.

In March 2019, the Ford experienced mysterious malfunctions in the nuclear propulsion system’s steam turbines. This needed unanticipated and extensive overhauls.

Testing revealed the Navy underestimated the workload and the number of people necessary to operate the EMALS system. The Navy redesign some berthing areas to accommodate more people. It was also supposed to increase the lifespan of aircraft by putting less stress on their airframes by using a more controlled release of energy during a catapult launch. Tests of land-based EMALS prototypes showed that the system actually overstressed F-18 airframes during launch. This all means no operational cost savings. A buggy lemon will obviously cost more to operate.

SOURCES- USNI, Bloomberg
Written By Brian Wang,

35 thoughts on “Ford Carrier is a Failure With Huge Radar, Elevator, Launch and Landing Problems”

  1. Thanks for responding, Brian.
    I expect that they will transform the battlefield by leveraging data. Low Observability will be key to allowing over-the-horizon data to be gathered and shared with the battle group. Their talents would be wasted in a fighter role- although should they wish to shoot down an adversary (and thus, anounce their presence to them) they would be able to do this without ever getting into visual range. Where I see this going is going to completely transform warfighting. They will be calling in for the support they need to carry out mission objectives. Several drones for each F-35. Some of them will be UCAV fighters, which would be able to perform manuevers that would kill a human pilot. Others would be used in the air to surface role (depending on the mission). The F-35 could designate tartgets and share sensor data. Eventually, I predict fewer and fewer manned aircraft (including F-35s) until the air war, and eventually the entire battlefield will be fully automated.
    I do not fear this transition, but it requires significant investment, and a complete doctrinal paradigm shift.
    So- in short, I see the F-35 as a transitional weapon, which brings us to the coming new reality. Planners will need to field the F-35 and play around with it before they are able to take advantage of new capabilities and train officer corps in new tactics.
    They call it a fighter, but it is much more than that.
    In my humble opinion.

  2. For transparency. My previous employer (I am retired) has millions in electric power systems on the Ford and my old CEO was invited for the launch. None of these systems are among those that have issues. Our stuff worked. But the story of its purchase is interesting. We integrated and value added components purchased from US OEM’s in a proprietary design for the USN. The USN required that we sell our units to a non-value-added minority front firm (minority set asides) who doubled the price and didn’t even accept delivery, we direct ship to the subsystems subcontractor. The subsystem subcontractor doubled the price without value add selling them to the subsystem prime contractor, who doubled the price to the systems prime contractor, who doubled the price and sold them to Newport News shipyard, who doubled the price to the US Navy for many millions more than they cost. The system is designed to extract money from the government… and works exceedingly well, even if the elevators don’t.

  3. Where do you expect the program to be? Probably they can finally get the planes fixed and flying at closer to target operating levels. They still only have four missiles in them. or six with the new sidekick. but not 8-16 weapons like other fighters.

    But they are overpriced and Russia and China seem like they will reduce the advantages stealth capability. Improved coverage with stealth detecting radar and other counter stealth systems.

  4. The fundamental issues are that linear motors requiring precise tolerances to work don’t do well on a ship that flexes and changes shape in the temperatures, wind and waves of a real ocean. One of the problems with firing old engineers and replacing them with electronics worshiping kids. And doing your development on fixed land bases instead of on real ships.

  5. Even facing these initial ones with bugs is not something they would enjoy. the failure rates are not particularly worrying as you will see high failure rates as things are fixed.

    EMALS is the way to go in the future, even China is trying to figure it out for their latest carrier.

  6. I think the F-35 is recovering nicely.
    Wait a few years and see where the program is. I am confident the the platform will allow us to transition to drone fleets very well.
    Drones are the future. Our peers know this and invest accordingly.

  7. Yup. I worked with a few of them old engineers.
    I hit the work force when intel 386 was cutting edge. Company couldn’t afford upgrading to CAD, so they continued drafting on paper into the late 1990s. Great bunch of guys.
    Cool story: While I was working there, they were contracted to rebuild one of their older machines. It had been in service for nearly 100 years. A boring machine. The company started out building machines for the war effort. The Great War effort.
    I try to keep that old iron whenever possible. We have a 30 year old 300 ton stretch press that leaks hydraulic fluid like a sieve. OEM wants $6M to replace it, when all it really needs is cylinders to be rebuilt. We don’t need to automate the thing. The only time we ever use it is when we need to replace damaged aircraft skin. We use it once or twice a month. Rebuild the hydraulic cylinders and it will last another 30 years. Only has one servo valve for the die angle. Nothing to it. But because government dollars, and shop wants new CNC, we will probably be getting something that costs a fortune and will break down every time it’s been sitting a month with no power. That happens alot around here.

  8. Agree that – for now – carrier groups are needed. But only smartly. The only place needed is to ringfence China. Ideally, Pacific Command ought to be complemented with at least 2 more carrier groups (and move the 3rd Fleet further west) and have them sit in the South China Sea. We just don’t have additional good reliable base locations in that part of the world. Countermeasures will be redundant in about 5-10 years once hypersonics and airborne lasers come on-line. China will by then have out-built the U.S. on subs but they too will redundant.

    Yes to “Industry 4.0” thinking. Or actually 5.0. There are a LOT of amazing folks in/affiliated with DoD who can design and build the crap out of anything anyone anywhere. And they are really frustrated at times. Turf wars and the idiotic Congressional political overlay, which is like letting a monkey drive an Abrams. New thinking comes when you are forced by necessity, e.g., low budgets and time critical etc versus throwing money at the problem. The too-much money problem is largely driven by politicians who have no backbone or brains. Let the professionals get on with it.

    The largest R&D shop on the planet by a country mile is the DoD’s R&E where they ripped out all the (competing) projects and put it under one roof. Not perfect yet as this ruffled some mighty feathers (and the USD used to run NASA), but the uber-duber-super tanker is starting to turn in the right direction. Hope springs eternal.

  9. ‘This is why “global warming” is failing. Too nebulous. ‘
    The US admin needs the Ronald Reagan library burning to the ground, and Mar el Lago flattened by a force 5 hurricane. That can probably be arranged…

  10. F35 is still terrible. It is over budget and late. They are unsafe and may not be able to complete their missions.

    Over the past several years, U.S. Defense Department leaders have gone from citing technical problems as their biggest concern for the F-35 program to bemoaning the expense of buying and sustaining the aircraft.
    But the reality may be worse. According to documents exclusively obtained by Defense News, the F-35 continues to be marred by flaws and glitches that, if left unfixed, could create risks to pilot safety and call into question the fighter jet’s ability to accomplish key parts of its mission:

  11. Actually. electric was supposed to simplify, take less room, require less maintenance…

    My take away is that you don’t order boats where you haven’t proven the technologies that are going in yet. Every one of these technologies with issues should have had all their bugs worked out before there was any boat.

    The other thing is never trust Northrop Grumman. Build in Indonesia or Korea or something.

  12. This story gives the brits two new non catapult aircraft carriers some good press.
    $4.5 billion each. Carry F35b jets plus various helicopters.
    They learned from the Falklands war not to over complicate ships.

  13. Yes, but in both the near-past, the present and the foreseeable future, being able to bring a whole air-wing most-anywhere in the world by sea remains a critically important factor in the calculus of military projective power.

    Give 10 top-shelf not-specifically-nautical engineers (i.e. broad thinkers) free reign and plenty of egg-on-face data such as the Swedish under-carrier debacle, and we can put safe bets on their coming up with all kinds of active countermeasures. Not just for quiet subs. But all nature of present-and-future problems.  

    Trick is, to find them (people), and to have the far-above-average brilliance in leadership to let the bubble-heads go about the business of freshly looking at all nature of new designs.  And giving them money and resources to execute the designs.  

    America at times embraces this kind of free-wheeling ‘skunkworks’ approach. Most of the time tho’, it doesn’t. It is why NASA continues to feed trainloads of money to the almost-obsolete-before-it-takes-off SLS, instead of redirecting the same money into a REALLY streamlined SpaceX development effort. 

    Just Saying,
    GoatGuy ✓

  14. Ah… mmm… perhaps one could generalize that to “old engineers produce(d) much more robust designs”.  

    I have an engineering text, masters’ degree level, from the 1930s, my great-great uncle’s. Huge heavy book, printed on magnificent non-yellowing glossy paper, full of hand drawn-and-etched zinc plate diagrams and formulæ. Really something of a treasure.  

    In that book, to no small length, is a treatise on designing gears. The teeth, in particular. Designing them to not break after years of heavy duty use, near the design limit imposed by the target machine’s criteria.  

    I forget the term, but they develop the idea of ‘critical curvature’ of where square-cut teeth affix to the base metal. And show that when the radius is too small, flexure – microscopic to be sure – at those radii cause cracking to begin, and once that happens, it is exponential. Surprisingly fast. The gear then fails for lost teeth.

    The tome then goes on to abstract that to all kinds of mechanical design problems. Large ones, ship-building, small ones, tiny planetary gears, non-gear problems, bridge building, machine coping, even woodworking considerations for dovetail joints. Brilliant.

    I showed it to a fellow ME Masters candidate. He never had anywhere near the coverage of the topic. Was dumb-founded with its detail, usefulness, clarity.  

    Just Saying,
    GoatGuy ✓

  15. The United States leaks stories that weapons don’t work that actually do, and the Chinese Communist leak stories that weapons work when they actually don’t.

  16. “50 year lifespan”. I suppose, if used as a floating parking lot. I kinda feel sorry for the regular folks building these programs that are obsolete before they even lay the keel. The Swedes and their Stirling sub were able to follow and lie UNDER a carrier for weeks until they “sank” it inside a naval base.

  17. What Boop said. Look at who sits on the US and House Armed Services Committees. Connect the dots. There are quite a number of pols who review program progress and if they no like everyone will know.

  18. The F-16 was considered a failure while going through development as well. Its not always perfect first go but eventually emulated later.

  19. The ship design lead said he regretted putting the new radar on the ship, but not the new elevators or the EMALS/AGG pair. I believe he said it was a combo of trying too much new at once, and the concurrent development philosophy, though he had choice words for the radar in particular (though part of that was also due to delays for the Zumwalt radar). The new maglev elevators might have been able to be backfit if old style elevators were used but that’s not certain. Only EMALS/AAG was a core architecture change (switching to an all electric ship) that required a fixed commitment. If they saved the radar for a mid life refit, they could have focused more on EMALS/AAG, though the dev schedule would not have shortened much in my opinion, only improved the quality. It’s obvious a functionally different catapult will in the beginning have a different acceleration profile, so the stress lifecycle complaints are a red herring. If anything, being electric allows easily using software to dial in fixes if there isn’t a fundamental issue.

    Though it’s pretty bad design that all EMALS catapults were excessively sharing intermediate power buffering equipment that you effectively have to shut down 3 or all 4 to service one catapult, same with AAG and having to shutdown multiple wires to service one. That design decision should be criminal, considering the known operational needs.

  20. We have a helicopter blade test stand where I work. It was recently upgraded from an old Reliance drive to a newer system. Kept the motor and had it remanufactured. The contractor subbed out the drive installation to a major OEM. These guys were supposed to be the best. They crashed our test blades and broke the fixture during testing. The drive blew up after a few months, and the motor crapped out after that. Our good 20 year old motor. They blame moisture.
    Old technology was much more robust.

  21. Disappointing. This bothers me much more than the F-35 problems ever did, since there are so many of them being produced. So now we are committed to paying through the nose to solve these design issues.
    People should be fired. Failure is a heavy term, but justified here in failing to meet contract obligations.
    I hope we solve these problems quickly. Our adversaries are learning from our mistakes.
    All good ideas, and all poorly executed.

  22. Starship can deliver a couple of F-22 anywhere on the globe within 30 minutes. Imagine what a fleet of 100 Starships can do. And probably cheaper.

  23. It’s simpler than that. First, decades of trying to route out corruption has created a fairly transparent system of procurement. The unusual openness allows for a lot of negativity, and negativity moves news, while effective under budget programs are news only for enthusiasts and insiders. Secondly, there’s an element in the US who believe every program is a piece of garbage designed to waste money, and who spread only the failures and overruns to promote their view.

    For some reason those against the big budget weapons like the new carriers or F-35 don’t seem to be generally anti-military. That would be understandable. Instead they hold to unique ideas concerning what a good weapon is, such as jets with no radar, or an all submarine navy.

  24. I’ve long felt that such reporting is really useful as a kind of ‘anti-intelcon’ device. You build a powerful system. Set sail. Quietly leak it has all kinds of problems, and isn’t ready for prime time, probably for 6 or 10 years.  

    Meanwhile, “the enemy” becomes either complacent, or feels less urgently compelled to come up with comparable technology.  Which is just fine. Whether the new system is malfunctioning or not, the pressure is relieved.  

    OR, it could be looked at the other way. The “enemy” becomes emboldened. They push their own counterforces out forward, “pushing around” ours; we in turn shirk from open conflict; they feel powerful.  

    But if a shooting war comes about, soon they would find their equipment really isn’t up to par. Or their defenses. Or their offensive tactics. Egg-on-face, two-point-one. 

    Either way, its OK.

    In some sense, an ’emboldened’ enemy is a good thing to have — it focusses procurement energy and money back in the homeland. Nebulous enemy hosts don’t have the same effect. This is why “global warming” is failing. Too nebulous. 

    Just Saying,
    GoatGuy ✓

  25. You also have announced for years that the F-35 is a failure, over budgeted, delayed, not meeting design requirements and now it is selling like hot cakes, with quite satisfactory under $80 M price tag and going down as sales increase and many good ideas for upgraded versions. A practical solution to the problems with EMAL will be found before 2035. Having said that the US needs go back to more straight forward design methodologies, building cheap and good enough in quantities and taking in new technologies in strides. We can learn a lot from countries like Russia, Israel and China in this regard.

  26. You can’t call it a failure. The defense contractors made out bigley on it with the corporate welfare overage charges they received.

  27. I hope the Chinese readers enjoy the schadenfreude. They might think again if they ever have to face one when the bugs get worked out.

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