Shaky catapult system, arresting system issues on $13B ship keep pumping up pricetag

The USS Gerald R. Ford, the $13 billion aircraft carrier the Navy accepted in May, is not scheduled to be sent on its first full-fledged deployment for at least three years. And it's a good thing, because the Ford, now in testing, isn't ready to operate aircraft, largely because of problems with its new high-tech aircraft catapult system developed for the Navy by General Atomics (the company best known for its Predator and Reaper drones). And while it was finally completed, the new gear developed by General Atomics to capture aircraft landing on the ship's deck ended up costing three times its original price, soaring to $961 million all on its own and breaching program budgetary constraints.

The Navy has eaten those costs thanks to the "cost-plus" contract with General Atomics.

The issue with the catapult, officially called the Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System (EMALS), was discovered in 2014. Currently, as Bloomberg's Anthony Capaccio reports,  the catapult is incapable of launching aircraft loaded with external fuel tanks. As a result, the Ford would be unable to launch F/A-18 Super Hornet and E/A-18 Growler aircraft on long-range missions—in other words, it wouldn't be able to do the thing that aircraft carriers are intended most to do. It's not an issue of throwing weight; a software problem in EMALS caused "excessive vibration" in wing tanks aboard the aircraft in testing, the Navy found.

President Donald Trump was not entirely off base when he ranted to Time in May about the electromagnetic catapult system aboard the Ford:

You know the catapult is quite important. So I said what is this? Sir, this is our digital catapult system. He said well, we’re going to this because we wanted to keep up with modern [technology]. I said you don’t use steam anymore for catapult? No sir. I said, "Ah, how is it working?" "Sir, not good. Not good. Doesn’t have the power. You know the steam is just brutal. You see that sucker going and steam’s going all over the place, there’s planes thrown in the air." It sounded bad to me. Digital. They have digital. What is digital? And it’s very complicated, you have to be Albert Einstein to figure it out. And I said–and now they want to buy more aircraft carriers. I said what system are you going to be—"Sir, we’re staying with digital." I said no you’re not. You're going to goddamned steam, the digital costs hundreds of millions of dollars more money and it’s no good.

There are reasons the Navy wants to use a "digital" system. The EMALS system is lighter than the steam catapult systems other carriers use, it puts less stress on aircraft as it accelerates them off the deck, and it's expected to be less costly to maintain in the long run. The force applied via EMALS can be more finely adjusted for launching lighter or (eventually) heavier aircraft.  And it doesn't come with all the other baggage of steam, including the large amounts of fresh water that need to be created through seawater desalination to generate steam. All of these add up to lower costs in the long term.

The problem is that EMALS still needs to be adjusted. So for the near term, even though the Ford has been accepted by the Navy, it hasn't been cleared to operate fully loaded aircraft. And all the post-construction gymnastics encountered with the Ford do not bode well for the budget of the Navy's next planned carrier, the John F. Kennedy. The Government Accountability Office issued a report this month that questions the Navy's ability to bring the Kennedy in under the $11.4 billion cost cap set for the ship, since it is based on an 18-percent reduction in labor-hours spent on construction. No carrier has come in with fewer construction hours than its predecessor since the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower was delivered in 1977 (built for $5.2 billion in 2016 dollars).