Nimitz-class carriers use a hydraulically braked arresting system called the MK 7. When the hook on the landing aircraft catches one of the cables on the deck, the cables are braked by an engine inside the ship. This hydraulic arresting gear system has been in use since 1961, with several improvements over the years. But as a high-tech selling point, it’s a non-starter.
In part to secure increased development funding for the Ford program, the Navy replaced the proven hydraulic system with an entirely new electrical system, called the Advanced Arresting Gear (AAG). The original 2005 estimate for Advanced Arresting Gear development was $172 million. After work began, costs more than doubled to $364 million by 2009, and have since ballooned to well over $1.3 billion, an astounding 656% increase.
The Advanced Arresting Gear has the same failure rate as the EMALS, with 10 operational mission failures during the first 747 shipboard landings on the USS Ford. This makes it impossible for the Ford to meet its surge sortie rate requirements. And, in another design problem exactly like that of the EMALS, engineers made it impossible to repair Advanced Arresting Gear failures without shutting down flight operations because the power supply can’t be disconnected from the system components while flights continue.
One of the most intractable problems with the Ford’s design has been the elevators used to move munitions between the ship’s decks. In keeping with the overall desire to use electrical rather than hydraulic or steam components, the Ford’s elevators are operated with large electromagnets, which were not fully developed before construction on the ship began. The carriers have 11 Advanced Weapon Elevators that—if they worked properly—are supposed to lift more than 20,000 pounds at 150 feet per minute as compared to the earlier generation hydraulic elevators that could lift 10,500 pounds at 100 feet per minute.
But as of the summer of 2020, only six of the 11 elevators have been certified as functional, with the rest expected to follow within the next year. Navy officials have blamed software problems as well as “tight tolerances,” or the precision fit of the elevator’s lifting mechanism, and “physical structures adjustments” for the faulty elevators.
The root of the problem is that the Navy pushed ahead with construction of the ship before developing a mature design for the new elevators, through a practice known as concurrency, or when manufacturers begin production before completing development.
For all of the time and money invested in the Ford program, taxpayers should be able to expect that the new aircraft carrier would be ready to handle every mission imaginable. But in perhaps the greatest example of acquisition malfeasance, the Navy did not build its latest aircraft carrier to launch and recover the latest aircraft. Under the original plan for the program, the Ford-class carriers would not be able to handle the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. For a capability that should have been included in the original purchase price, the taxpayers will have to pay extra to have it added later.
You read that right. The latest $13.3 billion aircraft carrier can’t fully support the Navy’s newest aircraft. The USS Ford can launch and recover the F-35C, but the ship needs modifications on the flight deck like stronger jet blast deflectors to make the carrier “robust” enough to handle the extended F-35C launches and recoveries. The ship also lacks the necessary classified storage and work spaces to handle all of the data the F-35 collects and receives. Currently, only one of the Navy’s existing Nimitz-class carriers, the USS Abraham Lincoln, has been upgraded to handle a full F-35 deployment.