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Newport News Cuts Steel for Fourth Ford-Class Aircraft Carrier

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Members of the Miller family at the steel-cutting ceremony for the future USS Doris Miller (Huntington Ingalls)

Published Aug 25, 2021 5:10 PM by The Maritime Executive

 Huntington Ingalls' Newport News Shipbuilding yard has cut the first steel for the future USS Doris Miller (CVN 81), the fourth - and last currently on order - of the Gerald R. Ford-class carrier series. 

“Today we recognize the start of construction of the fourth ship of the Gerald R. Ford class,” said Jennifer Boykin, president of Newport News Shipbuilding. “From this day forward, our shipbuilders will put their hearts into every pipe they fit, every unit they lift and every inch of steel they weld."

The ship's namesake, Cook Third Class Doris "Dorrie" Miller, was awarded the Navy Cross for his heroic actions aboard the battleship USS West Virginia during the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor. When West Virginia came under attack by Japanese planes, Miller manned an anti-aircraft machine gun - which he had not been trained to use - until he ran out of ammunition and was ordered to abandon ship. He continued his service in the Pacific Theater, and he was lost in action in 1943 when the carrier USS Liscombe Bay was sunk by Japanese forces. 

CVN 81 is the second ship named in honor of Miller, the first aircraft carrier ever named for an African American and the first aircraft carrier ever named in honor of an enlisted sailor's actions. 

"It is so fitting and timely during a period of significant discussion and change we come together to begin construction of one of our Navy’s next great aircraft carriers, in the name of one of the finest heroes of the greatest generation,” said Rear Adm. James Downey, head of Program Executive Office Carriers. “We will construct a sound and mighty warship worthy of his legacy.”

Doris Miller is the fourth in the Ford series and the second Ford-class ordered as part of a two-ship block buy in 2019. She will be the second carrier built entirely with digital drawings and working documents, with zero paper-based work packages. 

As with all carrier projects, the timeline for Doris Miller is decadal: keel-laying is scheduled for 2026, with delivery following in 2032. If all 10 planned vessels are ordered, Newport News will be delivering Ford-class carriers until 2058 - more than 50 years after the first steel was cut for the first ship. 

Cost concerns

With a price tag of $11-13 billion each, the Ford-class carriers are the most expensive warships ever built. However, the Navy has yet to field a fully-working example. The first-in-class vessel was delivered in 2017, and after four years of post-delivery tests, repairs and refits, this week she entered a new six-month repair and refit period at Newport News. Two of her 11 electromagnetically-powered elevators are still incomplete, and the Navy hopes that they will finally be online by the end of this year. 

If all goes to plan, Ford will deploy for the first time in 2022, but she will not depart the pier with the capability to field the Navy's latest stealth fighter. The design changes needed for the F-35C will first be fitted on the second, third and fourth vessels in the series.

The future of the series is a matter of controversy. In March 2020, then-Acting Secretary of the Navy Thomas Modly told media that it was possible that Doris Miller would be the final Ford carrier. "I don't know if we're going to buy any more of that type," he said. Modly launched a "future carrier" review panel to look at alternatives to Ford, but he exited his post shortly after. His replacement - then-Acting Secretary of the Navy James E. McPherson - suspended the carrier review. 

According to Defense Daily, the Navy plans to start a new review of its carrier program beginning in 2022. The service faces a significant budgetary pinch as it attempts to renew its ballistic missile submarine fleet, and Ford is its most expensive platform. The service is increasingly interested in smaller, cheaper, unmanned platforms.