America’s New Aircraft Carrier Struggled To Certify Pilots Before 2022 Deployment

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If the fiscal year 2022 weapons system report from the Director of Operational Test and Evaluation (DOT&E) is any guide, America’s $13.3 billion aircraft carrier, the 5.7-year-old USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN 78), struggled to complete carrier qualifications before a 2022 shakedown deployment.

The Pentagon report is a grim, fact-filled contrast to the Navy’s relentless “cheer-and-clap louder” brand of Ford Class boosterism. According to DOT&E, “the reliability of CVN 78 catapults, arresting gear, and jet blast deflectors continues to have an adverse effect on sortie generation and flight operations efficiency.” The original Ford class business case was built around a 30% higher sortie generation rate than the legacy Nimitz class aircraft carriers.

Right now, the carrier itself is still recovering from a much-ballyhooed 53-day mini-deployment late last year. According to carrier-tracking websites, USS Ford has, as of today, spent 59 days pier-side—so far—in a “continuous maintenance availability” for a deployment in late 2023 or—more likely—sometime in 2024.

USS Ford has a lot to do before America’s future fleet of at least four Ford Class carriers can be considered anything more than a massive military liability.

Apparently unable to get aircraft on and off the flight deck in a reliable fashion during training evolutions, the USS Ford is simply unready for major combat operations, and will likely struggle to protect itself from even the most modest of threats.

Put bluntly, the USS Ford remains a floating bundle of science experiments. To make the aircraft carrier anything more than a feeble fighter, the Navy must stop the happy-talk, publicly acknowledge the flight deck problems, and then publicly get about fixing the shortcomings—and meting out institutional accountability when fundamental milestones are not met. That approach worked for the USS Ford’s long-troubled electromagnetic weapons elevators, and the same approach will work for the Ford’s troubled flight deck systems.

There is nothing wrong with acknowledging problems and solving them. Anything less—during a time of increased tension in both Europe and Asia—is a disservice to both the Navy and the Nation.

Face The Facts: The Ford Is Feeble:

Aboard the USS Ford, the electromagnetic aircraft launch system (EMALS) continues to disappoint. On average, the electromagnetic catapult fails every 614 cycles—a measly fifteen percent of the Navy’s target of 4,166 aircraft launches, or “mean cycles between operational mission failures (MCBOMF)”.

There are indications that EMALS will be unable to meet even that measly performance rate while deployed. During the first underway of the Initial Test and Evaluation (IOT&E) process in September 2022, “reliability appeared to regress,” significantly slowing carrier qualifications on two of ten days devoted to flight operations.

The Advanced Arresting Gear (AAG) aircraft recovery system is doing even worse than EMALS.

Through June 2022, the AAG could only support—on average—460 cycles (aircraft landings) before failing. That doesn’t even come to within three percent of the Navy’s expected 16,500 “mean cycles between operational mission failure” requirement—-and, again, like the EMALS system, “AAG reliability appeared to regress” during the first underway of the Initial Test and Evaluation (IOT&E) process, inflicting an “adverse effect to operations on three of the ten days of carrier qualifications.”

The jet blast deflectors failed, and—even worse—there are indications that the Navy is still troubleshooting problems with this fundamental piece of flight deck equipment. “Several modifications were implemented” during the carrier’s six-month “planned incremental availability maintenance period”—otherwise known as a refit—in 2021-2022, and yet, within five months of departing the shipyard, all four jet blast deflectors failed, causing “the ship to cancel the remainder of the Carrier Qualifications and return early.”

For the Department of Defense, it is time stop talking about the carrier’s sortie numbers and start wondering if the USS Ford—or any Ford Class carrier—is going to be reliable enough to train and certify Navy pilots on schedule—let alone launch and recover strikes in a time-critical deployed combat situation.

Quit Kidding Around And Fix The Ford:

The Navy knows the USS Ford’s limitations. From the moment the USS Ford left the shipyard in early 2022, the Navy began lowering expectations, indicating the carrier would go on a shakedown cruise with a likely smaller than average air wing. But rather than blame the carrier itself for the unprecedented shortfall, the Navy has consistently deflected, pointing at the the Global Force Management System—a classified process that is used to prepare and generate forces for combatant commanders—as a cause of the air wing shortfalls.

In late September 2022, days before the Ford left on deployment, Vice Admiral Daniel Dwyer, the commander of the U.S. Second Fleet, said that the air wing “won’t be the full complement, but it will be nearly the entire air wing.” He continued “that is not because of any lack of capacity aboard Ford, but only where the air wing is in the Global Force Management Process.”

The Admiral’s statement was technically correct. Pilot training and pilot carrier qualifications—a rigid process of getting “reps and sets” of day and night launches and landings aboard a carrier—are likely part of the Global Force Management Process. As an aircraft carrier, the USS Ford certainly has the capacity to qualify pilots, but, in 2022, the limited amount of time dedicated to a glitch-attenuated carrier qualification process likely constrained the number of carrier-certified pilots available to support the Ford’s initial shakedown deployment.

The Ford’s struggle to qualify pilots according to schedule is a serious matter, echoing throughout the fleet and, potentially, into the Ford’s own carrier air wing, Air Wing Eight.

The rate of decay in the Ford’s flight deck systems—evident to DOT&E observers during the Ford’s brief stints at sea in August and September—is another serious problem.

For a carrier that has rarely been at sea for longer than two weeks at a time, a marked decay in systems performance outside of testing events could be fatal. Given the rate of failures on the flight deck, any assumption that the troubled aircraft carrier might remain operationally effective during a standard months-long carrier deployment is unrealistic. An endurance failure, where key systems cannot hold up to sustained use during a deployment, risks hurting sailors.

The Navy has an obligation to both the sailors assigned to the USS Ford and the U.S. taxpayers to come clean as to how EMALS and AAG performed during the ship’s 2022 mini-deployment, and figure out how the ship can stay functional during the rigors of a real, battle-ready deployment—a non-showy deployment that involves substantial and unbroken stretches of sea time.

DOT&E has, again, warned that America’s Ford class carrier program is in real trouble. The Secretary of the Navy—or, failing that, the Secretary of Defense, must take the Ford in hand, and, just as the Service did with the Ford’s troublesome electromagnetic weapons elevators, get about fixing the Ford’s unready flight deck systems.

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