By Christopher P. Cavas
The aircraft carrier Gerald R. Ford (CVN 78) has been at sea one of every two days since returning to service in October, Acting Secretary of the Navy Thomas Modly said Tuesday, continuing evidence that the ship is meeting or exceeding expectations.
“The secretariat cares about this, and the department is engaged fully,” Modly declared. “Sometimes it just takes putting a lot of attention to a problem, and that’s what I’ve tried to do.”
Modly pointed to his directive in late November ordering Rear Adm. James Downey, program executive officer for aircraft carriers, to spend most of his time in Norfolk, Virginia, the Ford’s homeport, rather than at Naval Sea Systems Command headquarters in Washington.
“I think it’s more than symbolic, sending Rear Adm. Downey down there,” Modly said. “But there is some symbolism in there as well, to demonstrate that the flag officer in charge of the program is down there every day and working the issues.”
Downey and the Navy already had set an ambitious test and development schedule for the Ford before the ship completed a scheduled, 15-month overhaul period at Huntington Ingalls’ Newport News Shipbuilding yard, and the ship and its crew along with civilian and Navy engineers have ticked off a number of milestones.
The Electro-Magnetic Aircraft Launch System (EMALS) and the Advanced Arresting Gear (AAG) continue to meet reliability expectations, Modly noted, having recorded 958 aircraft launches and recoveries since October. All aircraft types expected to deploy on the Ford have been tested for compatibility, he added, and the ship’s flight deck is expected to be certified for operations by the end of March.
Air operations are expected to reach another level in May, when Carrier Air Wing Eight will come aboard Ford and begin cyclic flight operations. The ship’s crew also will carry out the first “end-to-end” movements of inert ordnance, moving missiles and bombs from the ship’s aft weapons magazine up the Advanced Weapons Elevators (AWEs) to be loaded onto aircraft.
The four certified AWE elevators been operated through 7,000 cycles with no issues, Modly said, adding that a fifth elevator will complete certification in April, the sixth by the end of September. Of the remaining five, Modly added, “three are scheduled for next year to be done by the first half of the year,” with the remaining two finished by the end of September 2021.
“The biggest problem on those [elevators] are the hatches and the doors,” Modly explained. “There are 70 total doors for the 11 elevators and they’re down to 20 that need to be fitted properly to make sure they work. That’s significant progress, I think that will continue.”
Towards the end of this year, Modly said, “Ford will become the primary training carrier for recertifying air wings as well as the student pilots from Pensacola, Florida. Pilot students will be coming over to do their stuff off Jacksonville, Florida, for that. It’s going to be very busy and contributing to readiness across the fleet.”
Modly continues to visit the Ford often.
“I rode the ship in on their last sea period,” he said. “Also talked to all the crew from Huntington Ingalls working on the elevators, I had a good chat with them separately, asked them how things are going. They seemed pretty enthusiastic they’ll get it done. Not a lot of negativity there at all.”
While attention has focused on the shipbuilders, Modly was asked about some of the other major contractors.
“I think they’ve stepped up. General Atomics especially has really stepped up,” he said of the developer of the launch and arresting gear.
“General Electric, what they had to do last year to get that main thrust bearing fixed, the amount of engineering they had to do to get that done, it’s miraculous what they did,” Modly said, referring to a serious propulsion system problem. “[GE] had a thrust bearing problem and they figured a way to address it without pulling the whole thing out of the ship.”
“But the engines and the powerplant have been running superbly,” Modly declared. “Really, no problems getting up to flank speed, sustaining that, stopping the ship on a dime, reversing, no issues. That’s been very positive.
“I’ve been down to the reactor room, the main control room. The layout is completely different than on the Nimitz,” the previous aircraft carrier design. “The people monitoring both plants are basically in the same space now. It’s more coordinated, it’s much more ergonomically designed. The plants are smaller, much more efficient. That piece of it seems to be working exceedingly well.”
About the Ford’s unique dual-band radar system, similar to three other systems on the Zumwalt-class destroyers, Modly was sanguine.
“Apparently the radar is operating fine. I didn’t get any issues relayed to me about the radar. It’s more the long-term how to keep this sustained if we only have four of these in the fleet, and that’s a huge challenge.”
Since taking over in late November as the acting secretary, Modly has made a focus on the Ford a major element of his time in office.
“At our first Make Ford Ready summit [on Jan. 9] we had four four-star admirals in the room,” Modly said — Chief of Naval Operations Mike Gilday, Vice CNO Robert Burke, Director of Naval Nuclear Propulsion James Caldwell, and Commander of U.S. Fleet Forces Command Christopher Grady. Also attending, Modly said, were “seven or eight three-stars, all the assistant secretaries of the Navy, the general counsel. And we had the CEOs or very senior people from the entire shipbuilding team that delivered that ship. It was an amazing turnout.
“It was a three-hour summit to go over priorities, go over planning, how we can pull some things forward in the schedule, some of the challenges we had. It was a very open dialogue.”
A second summit was held Feb. 26 at the Pentagon, he said, although that was more of an “internal meeting. “
Modly added that the second ship in the Ford class, John F. Kennedy (CVN 79) is 70 percent complete and some crewmembers are moving aboard. Construction at Newport News is seeing a 16 percent reduction in labor man-hours on the Kennedy compared with the Ford, he said.
Construction work on Enterprise (CVN 80) already has begun and material is being procured for the fourth ship, Doris Miller (CVN 81).
“I don’t know if we’re going to buy any more of that type,” Modly said, adding that, “we’re certainly thinking about possible other classes. What are we going to learn on these four that’s going to inform what we do next? But we have some time now, we have up until 2026, 2027 before we have to make a really firm decision on what the next carrier is going to look like.”
In the meantime, he noted, “the president has been vocal about his concerns with progress on the Ford. We heard him loud and clear. We are all hands on deck to make it ready so that our sailors can fight it, the nation can be proud of it, and our adversaries will fear it.”