Pentagon's Testing Office Warns of Unfixed Flaws Aboard USS Ford
The Pentagon's Director of Operational Test and Evaluation (DOT&E) has issued a critical review of the Navy's progress in preparing its newest carrier, the first-in-class USS Gerald R. Ford, for front-line service. It also highlighted durability and maintainability problems with the F-35 fighter, including unfavorable test results for the F-35C variant that will be used aboard Ford.
The office, which has written previously about the carrier and the Navy's two Littoral Combat Ship variants, listed a range of difficulties with Ford's core systems. DOT&E predicted that the carrier will not achieve the Navy's ambitious target for her sortie generation rate - the speed at which she can launch aircraft - due to "poor or unknown reliability of systems critical for flight operations," including her electromagnetic catapults, arresting gear, weapons elevators, and new Dual Band Radar.
During 763 attempted shipboard landings, the Ford's new Advanced Arresting Gear experienced 10 operational mission failures, according to the office. The carrier's design requirement for the system calls for one failure in 16,500 cycles. DOT&E suggested that the higher-than-expected failure rate is especially concerning because the system cannot be fully electrically isolated from the ship's high power buses while in service, limiting repairs on below-deck equipment during flight operations.
For arming her fighters, Ford is equipped with 11 weapons elevators to carry munitions to the hangar space and to the main deck. All 11 have been installed, and two are in the process of certification, but none have been accepted for delivery.
The Ford's costly Dual Band Radar system has been undergoing testing and improvements for years, and the Navy has opted not to install it on other platforms or on the remaining vessels in the Ford class. During sea-based developmental tests, DOT&E reported, the Dual Band Radar "was plagued by extraneous false and close-in dual tracks adversely affecting its performance." Its electronic protection capabilities - electronic counter-countermeasures - remain "incomplete and unfunded," the office warned, potentially placing the vessel at risk in a contested environment.
In addition, Ford exhibits more electromagnetic compatibility problems - issues with unwanted electromagnetic emissions and interference - than other Navy ships, DOT&E reported. The Navy continues to study the problems and develop mitigation plans.
Problems in the F-35 program
DOT&E also warned of durability and availability issues with the Department of Defense's F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the Pentagon's costliest weapons program. The fleet-wide average availability is below the program target value of 60 percent, and well below the 80 percent planned for the Initial Operational Test and Evaluation (IOT&E) phase, according to the office. The trend in availability has not changed over the past three years, despite initiatives for improvement.
In addition, the F-35B - the variant that the U.S. Marine Corps and the Royal Navy will deploy from sea-based platforms - showed issues in airframe durability testing, and the tests were halted at two full service lifetimes (16,000 hours equivalent). DOT&E believes that the service life of early-production F-35B fighters is under the expected 8,000 hours, and could be as low as 2,100 hours. This would mean that the earliest F-35Bs could begin to reach their service life limit as early as 2026.
The test airframe for the F-35C - the variant that the Navy will deploy from its carriers - reached 18,800 hours before tests were halted due to the discovery of cracking. It is presently being torn down and examined.