Arresting gear on Ford-class carriers under scrutiny

Hugh Lessig
Contact Reporterhlessig@dailypress.com
Committee wants answers on carrier system

Citing cost and performance concerns, a Senate panel wants a full review of the new system designed to safely land planes on the Navy's new Gerald R. Ford-class aircraft carriers.

The Advanced Arresting Gear, or AAG, uses a combination of energy-absorbing water turbines and an induction motor to bring aircraft to a controlled stop. Built by General Atomics, it is meant to be highly adjustable, suitable for a fighter jet, a larger aircraft or an unmanned drone. Its flexibility should reduce aircraft stress and maintenance costs.

However, the Senate Armed Services Committee revealed that the Navy is studying whether to continue with AAG in the Ford-class program or revert to a version of the system now used on current Nimitz-class carriers.

Newport News Shipbuilding builds aircraft carriers for the Navy. While the shipyard bears no responsibility for AAG's testing and performance, problems with such a critical system can affect schedules and operations at the yard.

AAG already is installed on the first-in-class Gerald R. Ford, its construction essentially complete and scheduled to be delivered to the Navy later this year.

But the Navy is now reviewing what will happen with the second and third Ford-class ships, the John F. Kennedy and Enterprise, respectively, according to the committee. The Navy has already ordered AAG for Kennedy, making it less likely that a change will happen on that ship.

The concerns are outlined in the Armed Services Committee's report on the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act, which serves as a blueprint for military spending and priorities. The NDAA comes up for a vote next week.

"The committee believes the Navy must pause and reconsider the way ahead, including the best business case, for the arresting gear on CVN-79 (Kennedy) and CVN-80 (Enterprise) and notes the Navy has already begun such a review," the report states.

General Atomics referred questions about AAG to the Navy.

Capt. Thurraya Kent, a Navy spokeswoman, said she could not comment on specifics in the Senate report. In a statement emailed to the Daily Press, she said, "The Navy continues to work diligently to deliver the arresting gear system to the CVN-78 (Ford) class in accordance with program requirements. There is no decision to change that direction at this time."

A key financial measure of the AAG is the procurement acquisition unit cost, which considers money spent on research and development, plus the scope of the planned purchase. As of February, it has risen 186 percent from the original baseline estimate in 2009, and 43 percent above the current basement estimate of 2013.

Besides cost, performance is also an issue. The committee notes "persistent delays in software development" that prompted the Navy to lower requirements for the AAG and eliminate a measure that it be back-fitted onto Nimitz-class ships.

In early 2015, the Navy considered using the current Nimitz-class system, called the Mark 7, on the upcoming Kennedy. It backed off..

The Navy "decided to continue with AAG, in part because the installation of the Mark 7 was estimated to cost $87 million more than AAG," the report states. "This appears to be a shortsighted decision given the extraordinary and continuing development delays and cost growth, including more than $500 million since this decision was made in February 2015."

The committee's report is the latest in a series of publicly stated concerns about AAG.

In November 2014, the Government Accountability Office report noted failures in land-based testing and the potential for delays if the system already installed on the Gerald R. Ford had to be modified.

In March 2015, then-Rear Adm. Thomas Moore said the system was about two years behind schedule due to problems discovered in testing that led to further work and redesign. At the time, Moore was the Navy's program executive officer for carriers. Now Vice Adm. Moore is the head of Naval Sea Systems Command, a post he formally assumed Friday.

In October, a Pentagon official told Congress that testing on AAG had not yet accumulated meaningful data, yet it was already installed on Ford.

Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., a member of the Armed Services panel, said a big challenge with the Ford-class program stems from introducing many new components all at once, instead of phasing in new systems over a series of ships. That decision was made some years ago.

As for AAG, he said there is no margin for error.

"I'm very aware of it," he said, "and I've had discussions with people at the shipyard about it."

He said the redesigned AAG "can't work 95 percent of the time. That's got to work 100 or 1,000 percent of the time. That is an area of real concern for the Navy. It's a concern for the shipyard and it's a concern for the committee."

Referring to committee's call for a full review, Kaine said, "We want the Secretary of Defense to basically give us a candid assessment of this, because we've got other ships under contract that are being designed. We want to make sure we are not putting our aviators at risk."

Lessig can be reached at 757-247-7821.

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