USS Ford’s problems revealed

World naval developments July 2019

USS Ford

By Norman Friedman*

In July the ongoing problems of the new carrier Ford were raised yet again, this time during the confirmation hearings of the new Chief of Naval Operations. The current issue is the ship’s eleven weapon elevators, only two of which are operational. The larger question is why, after many decades of extremely successful carriers, this ship is having such severe problems. Is it the new electric technology involved? Is it the result of switching from the earlier successful Nimitzdesign?

The Ford problem is more likely the result of a fundamental shift in the way the ship was planned and bought, decisions which can be traced directly to former Secretary of Defense Donald S. Rumsfeld. When Mr. Rumsfeld entered office in 2001, the main issue in defense seemed to be an urgent need to change direction. The long run-down begun at the end of the Cold War was continuing. What should the United States do to maintain an edge? Mr. Rumsfeld became enamored of what was then being described as a Revolution in Military Affairs, although that had many meanings.    He began his term in office by reviewing existing programs in hopes of gaining the necessary money for the revolution by killing off anything he considered stodgy and obsolescent. Revolutionary change was so vital that it should be accelerated. The U.S. defense force had to be transformed to meet the challenges of the new century.  Rumsfeld went so far as to establish an Office of Transformation run by Admiral Cebrowski, who had championed a transformational approach to war called Network-Centric Warfare.

All of this must have sounded very attractive.  The Fordis one consequence of the Rumsfeld initiatives. In 2001, the Navy agreed that it needed a new carrier design, and it also agreed that the path to that design had to involve a massive shift from existing power practices towards an all-electric ship. The Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) had already helped push the Navy towards revolutionary rather than evolutionary designs by killing off the preliminary design function within NAVSEA.  The great design issue had always been the mismatch between what was wanted and what engineers could do. The preliminary designers had helped avoid major problems by showing those laying down requirements what they would mean in actual ships. In one memorable example, in the late 1950s,a senior officer suggested that future U.S. surface warships should be designed to resist nearby nuclear blasts. That was certainly possible, but the preliminary designers showed what it would cost – in this case, about 25,000 tons for a missile destroyer.  This use of in-house talent to discipline buying was very much a Navy idea; when it killed the preliminary designers OSD was demanding that all the services follow the same model. In later terms, killing preliminary design made it impossible for those laying out requirements to understand trade-offs. For example, when the Zumwaltwas designed, no one said that demanding a particular level of stealth would cost about 14,000 tons, and no one could then ask whether that was the right thing to emphasize. Similarly, no one could ask what it would cost to demand the very high speed which has shaped the LCS.

The new carrier reflected Rumsfeld’s demand for instant change. Going in, the Navy wanted to gain its revolutionary change in increments, building three carriers which would embody different major improvements.  This idea of incremental change – of what is called spiral development – has served the Navy extremely well. To someone looking for instant change, it seems stodgy and foolish. Surely, if the time is ripe for something new, it is better to leap than to edge towards it. 

The reality is that the leap, which is called concurrent development, often fails. Concurrency means what it says: most of what is in the new weapon or system has to be developed in parallel, at the same time, in hopes that it will all come out equally well at the same time. However, of many new elements, it is often very difficult to decide exactly what is going wrong.  There may well be unexpected connections between new elements. For example, Forduses linear electric motors in her catapults and in her elevators, replacing steam in the catapults and hydraulics in the elevators. The change is very attractive. The motors are far more compact, controllable, and efficient – there is a reason Ford’sweapon elevators have more than twice the rating of past ships. There are also very attractive survivability advantages.  

Any change in technology brings unexpected problems. For example, apparently tolerances on the elevator tracks are much tighter than in the past, so a great deal of cutting and welding has been required. The electric drives are all software-controlled, and, unsurprisingly, that has caused problems.  At least in the case of the catapults, there may also be durability issues.

Unfortunately the details of how weapons are developed and bought attract little attention until there is a spectacular failure such asthat we are seeing in the Ford.  Concurrent development, which should perhaps be called revolutionary development, always sounds like the path to the future. It was, for example, the way the Army and the Air Force chose to develop anti-missile missiles. The Navy pursued spiral development, not least because it already had much of the necessary system in place in embryonic form, in the Aegis control system. Its long experience with anti-aircraft missiles showed the Navy developers that it was best to build on something with known characteristics, in this case the Standard Missile. This path required that the Navy end of the missile team have considerable engineering knowledge, so that it could see a path ahead and evaluate what was being offered.  This technique ran against OSD’s vision of military managers, not engineers, buying revolutionary technology developed by industry. The Navy’s path has been far happier than those pursued by the other services.

The missile world provides an excellent example of the two kinds of development. U.S. naval air defense missiles are the products of spiral development. Spirals need not be small steps. For example, in the early 1960s the Navy badly needed a new missile system. It initially planned a wholly new one, Typhon, which would have used new missiles controlled by entirely new fire controls, including some revolutionary radars. Existing systems, on which a great deal of money had been spent, were considered both unreliable and insufficient (they could not handle enough targets at the same time).  Money was tight, and the new system was an obvious candidate for cancellation. Instead, money went into fixing the existing missiles (the ‘get-well program’) and into beginning work on something new. Since there was so little money, the natural impulse to buy a new missile was quashed. The navy was compelled into spiral development, which in this case meant embedding a modified version of the existing Standard Missile in an entirely new control system, Aegis. We are still using the result, and it works wonderfully.

We can see how an alternative did not work. At the end of World War II, the Royal Navy was working on an anti-aircraft missile roughly in parallel with the U.S. Navy; its weapon was called Seaslug. Like the early U.S. missiles, Seaslug   was unreliable. The British Ministry of Defence came to see Seaslug as a bottomless pit for money. Instead of adopting a get-well program, it jumped at an alternative, Sea Dart. Sea Dart could be seen as a ramjet-powered equivalent to the U.S. Standard Missile, and many would say that the different powerplant gave it greater development potential. The British certainly thought so. When the relevant committee was deciding whether to approve Sea Dart development, its proponents said that the U.S. missile was at the end of its potential, whereas Sea Dart was just starting. Perhaps it would have seen things differently half a century later, when Sea Dart is a memory and Standard is still going strong. It did not help the Royal Navy that the decision-makers focused on the missile itself and not on the missile system, which included the shipboard system guiding it. The most important jump in U.S. capability came with a big change in the controlling system, which was possible because the missile it controlled was a known quantity. Controlling a known missile made it possible to limit the level of innovation in the controlling system. Not changing the missile limited what it cost to upgrade total system performance, in this case radically.

What happened had real impacts for a war at sea. The great problem of the 1980s was saturation: ships faced by so many incoming missiles that they had no chance to shoot them down. Money spent on Sea Dart precluded investing in an Aegis-style anti-saturation system. The shift from Seaslug to Sea Dart, moreover, made the rather expensive Seaslug ships instantly obsolete, and they had to be discarded before they wore out.  Although the Sea Dart ships were quite austere, money spent on them could not go into a better control system. Even so, a lot had to be spent on various get-well programs.  There is no question but that Sea Dart eventually worked reliably, but by that time the air threat had moved well beyond it. Only now is the Royal Navy getting an effective Aegis-style system. 

There was never any question but that Secretary Rumsfeld was right that revolutionary changes were coming. The question has always been how to jump from what we have to what we need. Those who dislike spiral development see it as a series of cautious baby steps towards an ever-receding future. Hence the bold leap represented by USS Gerald R. Ford.  The lesson past naval experience teaches is that the baby steps are not so small, and that they get us to where we want to go a lot more effectively.

*Norman Friedman is author of The Naval Institute Guide to World Naval Weapon Systems. His column is published with kind permission of the US Naval Institute.

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