Who Can Spend the Most? Navy Competition Hots Up
Impressive feat by the USN Submarine Team
Among the more dramatic recent competitions between and within the U.S. military services has been the race between the Navy’s submariners and aircraft carrier communities to produce the world’s most expensive warship. This should be a walkover for the carrier team, given their entrant is the 100,000 ton nuclear powered USS Gerald R. Ford, the first in an eponymous class of new carriers. Not only is it the largest warship in history, it is replete with ambitious new technology, including novel systems for launching and receiving aircraft, as well as a new radar, so its first-place ranking in terms of bloat and overrun would seem assured, as confirmed by the cost to date of $13.316 billion, a robust growth of 27 percent over the original estimate of $10.489 billion.
Sub Ahead by a Nose!
Yet, despite these efforts, the Ford lags the USS Columbia, the first in the Navy’s new class of ballistic missile submarines. Although only a third of the way through construction, this 20,000 ton boat carried a current price tag of $15.179 billion, almost $2 billion more than the carrier. That number is sure to grow, given the extreme likelihood that it will miss the deadline for its first patrol in 2031. The Navy, according to a Government Accountability Office report (currently withheld from us taxpayers but obtained by Bloomberg) is privately griping that it has “not obtained the schedule data and statistical information needed to confidently determine the likelihood that the shipbuilders can accomplish it as planned.” In other words, the relevant contractor, Electric Boat, is refusing to fess up on how far behind they are.
Spoils of War is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
Costs Zoom, But That’s the Idea.
Needless to say, the carrier team are not taking the challenge lying down. They have already asked congress for an extra $1.465 billion this year, which would put them just a nose behind the $15 billion sub and closing fast. According to a recent Congressional Research Service report, the reason for the walloping costs overrun is “an unrealistically low original cost estimate for the ship...which might have reflected an underestimate of the intrinsic challenges of building the then-new Ford-class design compared to those of building the previous and well understood Nimitz-class design.” In other words, they low-balled the initial price estimate while loading up the design with untried technology, replacing systems performing the same function that worked perfectly well, with the result the budget has gone through the roof – which, in the value universe of the military industrial complex (MIC), is entirely the point.
Security Alert: Someone Told Trump!
The most striking example of this process at work in the carrier program has been the junking of the tried and true steam catapult for launching aircraft, which has worked fine on carriers for sixty years, in favor of an electromagnetic system that is quite remarkably unreliable, a failing noted in a just-released report by the Pentagon’s Director of Operational Test and Evaluation. The report details that the Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System (EMALS), is failing on average once every 614 launches, as opposed to the requirement for a breakdown rate of just over 4,000 times between launches. This at least is an improvement over the previous year’s effort, which was about 25 percent worse. But, notes the tester sadly, in a September voyage, reliability “appeared to regress.” (In an astonishing lapse of navy security, Donald Trump was allowed to have an honest conversation with someone who told him the truth about the catapult when he came to launch the Ford in March, 2017. To the admirals’ fury he would thereafter regularly sound off on the virtues of the old steam version.)
Fortunately for the Navy budget, no one told the germaphobe president about the ship’s sewage system, also a technological novelty for a warship and subject to regular, noxious, blockages and backups, forcing the 4000 crew to relieve themselves in bottles or other makeshift containers before emptying the contents over the side. Flushing the system costs $400,000 a time, which at least helps boost the carrier’s side of the ledger.
Finally, lest all who quake in their beds in fear of the Chinese Threat be further depressed by this report, they should know that the Chinese have adopted the same flawed EMALS launch technology for their newest carrier, the Fujian - a telling reminder that the “arms race” is not with the ever-useful Threat, be it China, or America, but merely a competition to see who can extract the most from the relevant set of hapless taxpayers.