Navy's New Carrier Still Can't Reliably Get Planes In The Air Or Safely Back On The Deck

The Navy's newest and most advanced carrier can't make it through a day of operations, on average, without a launch and recovery system failure.

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Statistics from a new Pentagon report show that the troublesome electromagnetic catapults and new arresting gear on the U.S. Navy's newest aircraft carrier, the USS Gerald R. Ford, performed terribly during at-sea trials over the past two years. The news comes just weeks after the Pentagon approved plans for a block buy of two more of Ford-class flattops in an attempt to help cut ballooning costs. The first-in-class USS Gerald R. Ford, also known as CVN-78, was billions of dollars over budget at the time of delivery in 2017 and continues to require significant and costly work.

Bloomberg was first to report the new details about the Ford's dismal performance in 2018 after obtaining a copy of the latest annual review from the Office of the Director of Operational Test and Evaluation, more commonly known as DOT&E. Every Spring, this office releases public reports on how well, or not, various high-profile military systems performed in testing in the previous fiscal year, which ends in September. These reviews often include data compiled over multiple years, as well.

We have yet to see the full report for ourselves, but DOT&E's latest examination of Ford shows that Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System (EMALS) suffered 10 "critical failures" across 747 aircraft launches in at-sea trials since delivery in 2017, according to Bloomberg. The Advanced Arresting Gear (AAG) had 10 “operational mission failures” over the course of 763 landing attempts in that same time frame.

There are no additional details on what qualifies as a "critical failure" for the EMALS or an "operational mission failure" for the AAG. It is reasonable to assume these categories are instances where the catapults did not successfully launch the aircraft and that the arresting gear did not safely stop returning planes, for one reason or another.

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Ford with her deck devoid of aircraft during initial sea trials.

EMALS and AAG are essential for Ford's ability to conduct aviation operations and both of these systems, which are all-new to this class of ships, are also supposed to improve its capabilities compared to past flattops. These electronically operated and controlled launch and recovery systems allow the crew to fine tune how they get aircraft up in the air and get them safely back on the deck, at least in principle. When they're working correctly, the two systems are supposed to help increase the number of sorties the carrier can generate and reduce the physical strain on aircraft, lowering maintenance and logistical demands.

Suffice to say, so far this hasn't been the case and the persistent problems with the EMALS and AAG directly impact the carrier's ability to conduct actual meaningful operations. For testing purposes, in the past, the Navy has defined a typical day of operations as launching and recovering 84 aircraft in a 24 hour period. The required number of sorties could easily be far greater during combat, especially during the initial phases of a major conflict or even a smaller crisis.

At present, Ford “will probably not achieve” the required number of sorties per day due to “unrealistic assumptions" that “ignore the effects of weather, aircraft emergencies, ship maneuvers and current air-wing composition on flight operations," Robert Behler, the Director of Operational Test and Evaluation, wrote in his latest report, according to Bloomberg. But this latest review raises continued questions about whether the carrier can even meet those requirements under optimal circumstances.

“None of the interruptions experienced during CVN-78 flight operations caused injury to personnel, or damage to the aircraft or ship,” Michael Land, a U.S. Navy spokesperson, told Bloomberg. The tests provide "an insufficient number of events from which to draw conclusions with respect to reliability," he added. General Atomics, which makes both the EMALS and the AAG, declined to comment to Bloomberg on any specifics about the performance of the two systems.

But based on the data in the previous DOT&E report, the Ford's performance still sounds absolutely dreadful. As of 2017, the EMALS was suffering a critical failure once every 455 launches. This was already nine times more frequent than the Navy's desired rate. 

If the information from the new report is accurate, during at-sea testing, the catapults broke down once every 75 launches or so, a significantly greater rate than the previously stated average. Land, the Navy spokesperson, said that in the case of two of the critical failures, the ship only "briefly" suspended flight operations before the problem got resolved. 

Again, however, previous DOT&E reports say that it takes a minimum of an hour and a half to just begin troubleshooting an issue since there is no way to shut down specific components of the EMALS in order to inspect them. We do not know if this has changed since 2017 or what the Navy defines as a "brief" pause in regular operations.

Unlike the EMALS, the AAG's demonstrated better reliability at-sea compared to its overall failure rate as of 2017. The arresting gear only experienced a major failure once every 76 recovery attempts, based on the information from Bloomberg

The AAG was failing once every 20 landing attempts on average across all testing as of 2017, according to DOT&E's previous review. The Navy isn't likely to be impressed by this "improvement," though, given that the service expects Ford's arresting system to properly stop aircraft in 16,500 consecutive landings on average before experiencing a major fault.

We'll have to wait to see the full report to be sure, but its likely that it contains additional criticisms of Ford's performance, or lack thereof. Starting in November 2018, there have been a series of reports detailing persistent difficulties with the ship's electromagnetically-operated Advanced Weapon Elevators, which that move ordnance to and from the main flight deck. 

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Sailors stand inside the newly delivered weapon elevator onboard the USS Ford in January 2019.

The Navy only formally accepted delivery of the first of these elevators on Ford in December 2018, more than a year after taking delivery of the ship itself. The carrier is still waiting on 10 more of them, meaning that it lacks another major set of components critical to regular operations. 

The question is increasingly becoming whether or not all of these issues will have gotten resolved by the time the next Ford-class carrier, the future USS John F. Kennedy, is set to get commissioned in 2024. The cost of that ship has already risen to around $15 billion. This two billion more than Ford and four-and-a-half billion more than the Navy insisted the ships would cost initially, in spite of higher cost estimates from government watchdogs and the shipbuilder, Newport News Shipbuilding.

A third example, the future USS Enterprise, is also already under construction. The Navy has not yet received any actual funding for the two additional ships it wants to purchase in the block buy.

Unfortunately, the Navy already has a "carrier gap" that has made it difficult to meet existing demands for naval airpower, let alone the added strain of a sudden crisis. Given what we know of Ford's capabilities at present, it's anyone's guess when that carrier might be ready to contribute to actual operations in anything but an emergency capacity.

Contact the author: jtrevithickpr@gmail.com