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Christopher Woody

Navy secretary bets his job that he can fix USS Ford

(US Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Julio Martinez Martinez)

Like most first-in-class warships, the USS Gerald R. Ford has had problems during its construction and testing, especially because of the array of new technology it carries.

But the $13 billion aircraft carrier has attracted special attention, and now Secretary of the Navy Richard V. Spencer is putting his job on the line to guarantee one big problem will be resolved.


The Ford's new Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System has been a particular focus for President Donald Trump. He expressed dismay with the system in May 2017 and has mentioned it several times since, bringing it up at random on several occasions.

Other officials, including the Senate Armed Services Committee chairman, Sen. James Inhofe, have objected to protracted issues with the carrier's Advanced Weapons Elevators, which use magnets rather than cables to lift munitions to the flight deck.

President Donald Trump speaking with Navy and shipyard personnel aboard the Gerald R. Ford in Newport News, Virginia, in 2017.

(U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication 1st Class Joshua Sheppard)

None of the carrier's 11 elevators were installed when it was delivered in May 2017 — 32 months late. But the Navy accepted and commissioned the carrier, and after a year of testing at sea, in July 2018 it entered its post-shakedown period.

The start of the post-shakedown period was delayed by another defect, and it was extended from eight months to a year to take care of normal work and work that had been put off, like the installation of the elevators and upgrades to the Advanced Arresting Gear, which has also faced technical problems.

The Navy has said the elevators will be installed and tested by the end of the post-shakedown period in 2019. Six will be certified for use at that time, but five won't be completed until after July 2019.

Spencer said Jan. 8, 2019, that during a discussion at the Army-Navy football game in December 2018 he gave Trump a high-stakes promise.

"I asked him to stick his hand out — he stuck his hand out. I said, 'Let's do this like corporate America.' I shook his hand and said the elevators will be ready to go when she pulls out or you can fire me," Spencer said at an event at the Center for a New American Security, according to USNI News.

"We're going to get it done. I know I'm going to get it done," he added. "I haven't been fired yet by anyone — being fired by the president really isn't on the top of my list."

Tugboats maneuvering the Gerald R. Ford into the James River.

(US Navy photo)

Spencer also said Trump asked him about EMALS. He told the president that the Navy had "got the bugs out" and that the system and its capabilities were "all to our advantage."

Inhofe is also raising the stakes.

"The fleet needed and expected this ship to be delivered in 2015," he told Bloomberg on Jan. 7, 2019. "Until all of the advanced weapons elevators work, we only have 10 operational aircraft carriers, despite a requirement for 12."

Inhofe has told the Navy he wants monthly status reports on the carrier until its elevators are working.

The Ford is the first of its class, and the next Ford-class carrier, the USS John F. Kennedy, is under construction by Huntington Ingalls at Newport News, Virginia, where it reached the halfway point in 2018.

The Navy told legislators early January 2019 that it would go ahead with a plan to buy the next Ford-class carriers, CVN 80 and CVN 81, on a single contract, known as a "block buy."

A crane moving the lower stern into place on the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier John F. Kennedy at Huntington Ingalls Shipbuilding in Newport News, making the second Gerald R. Ford-class aircraft carrier 50% structurally complete, on June 22, 2017.

(US Navy photo)

The Navy has said it will spend about $43 billion on the first three Ford-class carriers, and it has touted the block buy as a way to save as much as $4 billion over single contracts for the third and fourth ships. The program as a whole is expected to cost $58 billion.

"This smart move will save taxpayer dollars and help ensure the shipyards can maintain a skilled workforce to get the job done," Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia said after the Navy informed lawmakers of the decision.

Inhofe, however, remains wary.

He told Bloomberg that he looked forward to "the greater predictability and stability" provided by the block buy but called the purchase "a significant commitment" requiring "sustained investments for more than a decade" to get the $4 billion in savings estimated by the Navy.

This article originally appeared on Business Insider. Follow @BusinessInsider on Twitter.