The new Ford class CVN (nuclear-powered aircraft carrier) has become a major disaster rather than a more effective new ship design. Several innovative new technologies were supposed to have made the Fords more effective and cheaper to operate than the previous, and similar looking Nimitz class. Two of those new technologies, EMALS (Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System) catapults and landing equipment and high-speed electromagnetic ammunition elevators (for getting explosive items to the deck more quickly), have failed. There are lesser problems with the nuclear propulsion system and the new radars, while some modifications needed so that the new F-35C can operate.
The navy believes it is making steady progress in fixing the reliability problems with EMALS. Given the number of times “steady progress” has been used before and turned out to be incorrect there is not a lot of optimism about EMALS matching, much less surpassing, the performance of the older steam catapult system. Time will tell and given the multiple problems with the Fords, it’s unclear which problem will take the longest to fix.
The equipment failure getting the most attention now has to do with the new elevator design. The older elevator design, used successfully for decades on existing Nimitz class carriers, moves up to 2.3 tons of ammo from the magazines to the deck at a speed of 30 meters (100 feet) a minute. The new elevators each move 10.9 tons to the deck at 45 meters a minute. The new elevators were meant to increase the number of combat sorties by 30 percent over 24 hours. Currently, only two of the eleven Ford elevators are working. At the end of 2018, the navy said all the elevators would be working by July 2019. That did not happen because it turned out the elevators were not built to spec and now major repairs were underway to fix that. This takes time and it was a problem that could have been avoided if the navy had built an elevator ashore to test the design before proceeding with construction of the carrier. Many of the problems with the current errors are because construction was sloppy and not caught by quality control personnel.
The nuclear propulsion system problems were the kind that only get discovered once the ship is at sea. To a certain extent that is also true of the radar problems. The EMALS problems were more fundamental and even though a test EMALS was installed on land first and tested, it was not tested thoroughly enough. The landing arrestor system also used new technology similar to EMALS and performed poorly at sea for the same reasons (sloppy design and testing) as EMALS. The F-35C problems are minor in comparison. You have to install sturdier jet blast deflectors and rearrange space on the hanger deck to provide secure (limited access) spaces for work on highly classified F-35 components. The needed F-35C mods have already been made, tested and approved on one Nimitz class carrier. So this problem is mainly allocating enough time and money to do it for the first Ford class carrier and all subsequent ones.
The Ford is already two years late and will probably be at least four years late. Much of those delays could have been avoided if many of these new technologies were not installed on the first of the Ford class. Originally these new technologies were to be introduced separately in the first three Fords. Those early CVNs could have the new tech installed during the major refurbishment/upgrade periods that take carriers out of service for a year or more every decade. Before construction began on Ford it was decided to try and save some money by introducing all this new tech in the first ship. That may still be cost savings in the long run but in the short run it exposes the navy and the shipyards that build its ships to more criticism for poor management and shoddy construction. That is nothing new, it’s been happening more and more since the 1970s. That is a key problem that is not getting tended to and keeps getting worse.
It wasn’t until February 2018 that the navy confirmed that it had major problems with the design and construction of its new EMALS catapults, then installed in the newly completed USS Ford (CVN 78) and the three other Ford-class carriers under construction. During sea trials, the Ford used EMALS heavily, as would be the case in combat and training operations and found EMALS less reliable than the older steam catapult. EMALS was also more labor-intense to operate and put more stress on launched aircraft than expected. Worse, due to a basic design flaw, if one EMALS catapult becomes inoperable, the other three catapults could not be used in the meantime as was the case with steam catapults. This meant that the older practice of taking one or more steam catapults offline for maintenance or repairs while at sea was not practical. The navy admitted that in combat if one or more catapults were rendered unusable they remained that way until it was possible to shut down all four catapults for repairs.
The landing and recovery system also had reliability problems, failing far more frequently than the older systems. In effect, these problems with launching and recovering aircraft make the Fords much less effective than the older Truman (and other Nimitz class CVNs). The navy has long had a growing problem with developing new ships and technology and the Ford is the worst example to date. With no assurance as to when and to what extent the launch and recovery systems would be fixed, and be at least as effective as the older steam catapults the navy was faced with a major crisis.
The navy also asked for another delay in performing mandated shock tests for the Ford, in which controlled explosions were set off near the hull that generated at least 66 percent of the amount of force the ship was designed to handle. This would reveal what equipment was not sufficiently built or installed to handle shock and make changes as well as confirming that the hull can handle the stress overall. One of those sensitive systems was the new high-speed elevators that were more sensitive to shock damage. The navy wants to delay shock tests until the second Ford-class carrier enters service in the mid-2020s because, it admits, it is unsure how badly shock tests would damage new systems and design features.
Some of the problems with EMALS were of the sort that could be fixed while the new ship was in service. That included tweaking EMALS operation to generate less stress on aircraft and modifying the design of EMALS and reorganizing how sailors use the system to attain the smaller number of personnel required for catapult operations. But the fatal flaws involved basic reliability. An EMALS catapult was supposed to have a breakdown every 4,100 launches but even after some initial fixes, in heavy use, EMALS actually failed every 400 launches. By the end of 2017, the Navy concluded that an EMALS equipped carrier had only a seven percent chance of successfully completing a typical four-day “surge” (multiple catapult launches for a major combat operation) and only a 70 percent chance of completing a one-day surge operation. That was mainly because when one EMALS catapult went down all four were inoperable. In effect, the Ford-class carriers are much less capable of performing in combat than their predecessors. The navy hopes they can come up with some kind of, as yet unknown, modifications to EMALS to fix all these problems. In the meantime, the new Ford carrier is much less useful than older ones that use steam catapults.
There are no easy solutions. For example, it would cost over half a billion dollars to remove EMALS and install the older steam catapults. This would also take up to several years and lead to many other internal changes. The navy even considered bringing a recently retired (because of age) carrier back to active service as a stopgap because, whatever the fix is, it will not be quick or cheap. The most worrisome part of this is the apparent inability of Navy shipbuilding and design experts to come up with a solution for the problem they created. This EMALS catastrophe was avoidable and the problems should have been detected and taken care of before the Ford was on sea trials.
Back in 2010, the U.S. Navy plan to equip future aircraft carriers with electromagnetic catapults seemed like a great idea and everyone was assured that all was proceeding according to plan. This was especially true after EMALS passed some key tests in 2010. This included the first time an EMALS catapult-launched an F-18E carrier jet fighter. This was from a land base equipped with the test version of EMALS. Earlier in 2010 tests had been put on hold for a bit while software problems were fixed. The mechanical aspects of the electromagnetic catapult were believed pretty much solved but the test model the navy was working with has been having some serious problems with the control software. In the midst of all this, there was no mention of the key problems, like being able to repair one catapult while the other three kept working. This had been a key feature of steam catapults for a long time and what is really scary here is that no one caught it.
With the 2010 decision, the plan to put electromagnetic catapults into all future carriers (beginning with the Ford) went ahead and apparently serious criticism of real problems was no longer an option. This was a great relief at the time because the Ford was under construction and a massive (and expensive) redesign would be needed to make room for the bulkier steam catapult. Now that option must be again considered, along with the other option, to try and fix the problems that were missed in 2010.
The EMALS disaster calls into question the ability of the navy to handle new, untried, technologies. That is not a new problem and has been around since World War II. In retrospect, not enough was done to test and address what are now obvious problems. The current solution is to delay the moment of truth as long as possible and then conclude that it was unclear exactly how it happened but that measures would be taken to see that it never happen again. That approach is wearing thin because more people are well aware that is just a cover for the corruption and mismanagement that has been developing within the industries that build warships. The navy has been having a growing number of similar problems with the design of the LCS, the DDG 1000 and a lot of smaller systems.
Meanwhile, there is a critical need for new carriers. The first ship of the new class of carriers, the Ford is about the same length (333 meters/1,092 feet) and displacement (100,000 tons) of the previous generation (Nimitz class ships) but will look different. The most noticeable difference will be the island set closer to the stern (rear) of the ship. The internal differences are much more obvious, including the power generation and electrical system. The Nimitz ships are rapidly wearing out and with the EMALS disaster, the Navy will have to improvise and do without for a decade or more.
The Fords were not just replacements for the aging Nimitz class; they were designed to be cheaper to operate. There is a lot more automation and smaller crews. The Ford will be the first modern American warship built without urinals. There are several reasons for this. The Ford will have a smaller crew (by at least 20 percent) and more of them will be women. Currently, about ten percent of American warship crews are women, but the Ford crew will be at least 15 percent female. Since women sleep in all-female dormitories ("berthing areas"), a toilet ("head") will now be attached to each berthing area (instead of being down the hall). Moreover, berthing areas will be more spacious (because of the smaller crew) and hold a third to half as many bunks as previous carriers. Finally, drain pipes for urinals more frequently get clogged than those coming from toilets. So eliminating the urinals means less work for the plumbers. There are a lot of other visible changes to enhance habitability and make long voyages more tolerable. All that will have to be changed somewhat, at least in the Ford, and perhaps in others of this new class if EMALS cannot be fixed.
Before the EMALS crises, the Ford was expected to cost nearly $14 billion. About 40 percent of that is for designing the first ship of the class, so the actual cost of the first ship (CVN 78) itself will be at least $9 billion and about the same for subsequent ships of the class. Except, that is, for the additional cost of fixing the EMALS problems. Against this, the navy expects to reduce the carrier's lifetime operating expenses by several billion dollars because of greatly reduced crew size. Compared to the current Nimitz class carriers (which cost over $5 billion each to build) the Fords will feel, well, kind of empty because of the automation and smaller crews. There will also be more computer networking, and robots, reducing the number of people constantly moving around inside a Nimitz class carrier (with a crew of 6,000). The most recent Nimitz class ships have a lot of this automation already but adding EMALS was considered too expensive because of the major engineer changes to the power plant and electrical systems. A lot of that is subject to change depending on what internal alterations are required to make the carrier work at least as well as the Nimitz class. So far that has turned out to be a lot more difficult than anyone expected.
By late 2018 the navy had to face the possibility of major delays in getting the Ford, and the other three Fords under construction, into service before older CVNs were scheduled to retire. In May 2019 the U.S. announced that it was not going to retire the 21 year old aircraft carrier Truman (CVN-75). Two months earlier the decision had been made to retire the Truman to save the cost of its mid-life upgrade and refueling (of the nuclear reactors). The mid-life upgrade will cost $3.5 billion and take five years to complete. At that point, Truman would be able to operate another 25 years. That would cost $20 billion. By retiring the Truman the navy would save about $24 billion over 30 years and that money would be used to build new, smaller, ships and buy new weapons. Retiring Truman also allowed the navy to order and build two new Ford class CVNs at once, which would save time and money. The decision to keep Truman in service was not about money, but the fact that the new Ford class CVNs are facing major problems that delayed these ships from entering service. Keeping the Truman was also about the seemingly intractable problems the navy has building ships and developing new designs. Keeping the Truman is seen as a positive move towards fixing some fundamental management problems.