U.S. Navy's Top Officer Admits "Painful" Teething Issues With USS Ford

A team of experts inspects an advanced weapons elevator aboard USS Gerald R. Ford (USN)

Published Jul 21, 2021 5:12 PM by The Maritime Executive

In an interview given in advance of the annual Sea-Air-Space symposium, the U.S. Navy's top officer has provided an unusually frank assessment of the limitations of the service's oldest and newest platforms. The first Ticonderoga-class cruisers, built in the 80s, are having trouble seeing modern missile threats using near-obsolete radar systems. Meanwhile, the brand new USS Ford-class carrier remains plagued by technological teething problems, even after years of post-delivery repair work.

The Navy has long wanted to downsize its fleet of Ticonderoga-class vessels. While the cruisers have more vertical launch missile cells than the smaller Arleigh Burke-class destroyers, the aging Ticonderogas are expensive to maintain, and the technology behind their radars and fire control systems dates back to the Cold War. The Navy's FY2022 budget calls for decommissioning seven of the vessels this coming year.

In a webinar recorded for the run-up to the conference, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday said that these seven ships' radars are too outdated to keep up with the modern threat environment. Some on the list are fitted with the SPY-1A radar, a first-generation Aegis component that debuted in 1983. These radars "have difficulty actually seeing the threat, based on the speed and the profiles that we see threat missiles flying at these days," Gilday said.

They are also showing the signs of years of active deployment. Their average age is 32 years, and in some cases they are experiencing hull cracking from fatigue. Gilday pointed to the well-publicized fuel tank cracks affecting USS Vella Gulf, which had to return to port twice during an active deployment for repairs. These unpredictable material condition issues are raising the cost of running and modernizing the ships."It does have an impact on reliability. We need to be able to provide the secretary of defense reliable assets that they can count on to do the nation’s business," he said.

Gilday was also unsparing in his critique of the accelerated acquisition processes that yielded USS Gerald R. Ford. The carrier class incorporates 23 never-before-used technological advances, including some that were never developed to maturity on shore before installation on board.

"The ammunition elevators are an exceptional example of a painful process over the past four or five years," Gilday said, pointing to the longstanding difficulty of getting Ford's 11 weapons elevators running. At the time of Ford's delivery in 2017, none of the elevators were operable, and the Navy and its contractors have only managed to bring seven out of 11 online over the intervening years - even after recruiting a team of outside advisers and allocating 18 extra months for a post-commissioning shakedown.

"We really shouldn’t introduce more than maybe one or two new technologies on any complex platform like that in order to make sure we keep risk at a manageable level," he said. "[We need] a much more deliberate approach with respect to introducing new technologies to any platform."