Procurement: Freshman Follies

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September 29, 2007: The U.S. Government Accountability Office has reported that the first of a new class of aircraft carriers could face cost overruns. In one sense, this is not unusual with lead ships in a class. Translating a design from paper (or a computer screen) to a front-line warship can be difficult at times. That said, the Navy is not likely to give up on the new class of carrier.



There are those who wonder why carriers are so important, even now. However, during the Cold War, carriers at times carried out operations in coastal waters. Some examples included the "Line of Death" crises in the Gulf of Sidra (1981, 1986, and 1989), and supporting operations in Lebanon (1982-1984). Carriers also provide a quick response (see Korea in 1950 and the invasion of Kuwait in 1990).



In this case, the Ford-class is the latest version of carrier. The cost is much higher than the preceding class ($11 billion as compared to the $5 billion for a Nimitz), but the Ford-class features new arresting systems, catapults, radars and other systems designed to increase the sortie rate.



The question that is emerging is just what might happen with these overruns. Already the Zumwalt-class destroyer's price tag has ballooned to over $3 billion per ship. The LCS has also become expensive, about $200 million per ship (plus expenses for the mission

packages). Compare that to $1 billion for an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer or $68 million for the Oliver Hazard Perry-class
frigates.



These overruns will raise a lot of questions ­ and could threaten other programs. As good as these new ships are, they cannot be in two places at once. As such, the Navy will find itself paying more and more money­ and having to justify it to Congress, which will find itself torn between keeping the shipyards open (and thus jobs in their home states) and in keeping the costs under control.



However, all is not lost. Similar problems came with development of the San Antonio-class ships. The first ship had plenty of teething problems, and the second also had issues. Still, as the building program has continued, the ships have gotten better and the issues resolved. The same was true of the Arleigh Burke-class destroyers, now the backbone of the surface navy. In essence, the lead ships of a new class need the most work, but the lessons learned make building the follow-on vessels easier. ­ Harold C. Hutchison (haroldc.hutchison@gmail.com)


 


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