The U.S. Navy’s newest aircraft carrier, the USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN-78) is now in the fleet, restoring the number of active carriers to the legally mandated 11 for the first time since 2015. But now the Gerald R. Ford is not scheduled to deploy until 2024, six years later than its original deployment date, because of problems with some new technologies as well as a testing program that includes a shock trial.
The 2017 National Defense Authorization Act permitted the Secretary of Defense to waive the requirement to shock test the ship, a decision that could move the ship’s first deployment up by a year. But leaders of the Senate Armed Services Committee urged the Secretary not to delay shock testing the Gerald R. Ford, and the Department of Defense still has the test scheduled before the ship’s maiden deployment. This is a mistake.
A better decision would be to delay the Gerald R. Ford-class shock trial until the next ship in the class is ready, thereby freeing her to deploy when other issues are resolved. Not only would this not be unprecedented, it would be far more consistent with the shock-testing pattern of previous ship classes. As the chart below makes clear, shocking the 3rd or later ship of a class has been the norm in recent decades.
In 1987, Congress passed a law that requires all weapon systems be subjected to a live-fire test. The Navy proposed to substitute shock tests for live-fire tests because ships must be manned to operate at sea, while aircraft, tanks, trucks, and armored vehicles can be controlled remotely. Furthermore, to obtain realistic shock performance data, the Navy developed methods to test critical ship components at “heavy shock levels” on floating unmanned barges—methods that test to much higher levels of shock than could be administered to a manned ship or vehicle. Congress accepted this solution and allowed Navy ship shock tests instead of live-fire tests.
The history of shipbuilding shows that the first ship of a class goes through many changes during construction to decrease construction costs and fix design flaws. Since follow-on ships of many classes are built at a second yard, the design does not stabilize until after construction of the second ship. To shock test a stable ship design, the Navy therefore has ended up shock testing the 3rd or later ship of the class.
After shock testing the USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71), the fourth ship of the Nimitz class, an antenna structural support on the island failed and the deck at the base of ship’s mast buckled. That required a new structural support for the antenna and mast for the last two Nimitz-class carriers and replacements for the rest of the class during the midlife refueling overhauls. Furthermore, in terms of class in-service time, shock testing the USS John F. Kennedy (CVN-79) in 2025 or 2026 will be 1 to 2 years after its scheduled 2024 commissioning and 8 to 9 years after the Gerald R. Ford's 2017 commissioning. That will be 3 to 4 years earlier than for the Nimitz class when shock testing of the Theodore Roosevelt was done in 1987, one year after its 1986 commissioning and 12 years after the USS Nimitz (CVN-68) was commissioned in 1975. So for the Gerald R. Ford class, lessons learned from the John F. Kennedy’s shock trials will be incorporated 3 to 4 years earlier than they were with the Nimitz class.
The Gerald R. Ford has a one-of-a-kind dual-band radar (DBR). Originally selected because of its synergies with the DDG-1000 program (that was to be a 30-ship class), the DBR was later scaled back because of cost, leaving the Gerald R. Ford with the only one for its class. The DBR required the carrier to have a unique, pagoda-like island design that will have to be changed to accommodate the new radar for the rest of the class. With a new radar and a new island designed to accommodate it, that design will be stable for subsequent ships. For this reason alone, it makes more sense to shock test the second in the class, the USS John F. Kennedy (CVN-79).
Finally, shock trials are difficult to schedule because of environmental concerns. They are very expensive, and to protect marine life are conducted off Florida in late summer or early fall when the marine animal migratory traffic is at its lowest. But that puts shock trials in hurricane-prone waters where a storm can delay them, even forcing rescheduling to the following year in the next low-risk season. Waiting to shock test the John F. Kennedy will ensure an environmentally-driven delay has less effect on the class as a whole, as testing the Gerald R. Ford might require another ship in the class be tested as well anyway.
The best way forward for the Navy is to get the Gerald R. Ford on deployment as quickly as possible and start planning shock trials for the John F. Kennedy.